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Unique challenges for refugees becoming entrepreneurs

Ryan Delaney
Martin Butts, left, goes over Ethiopian-born Fesseha Kahsay's business plan as part of the UP Start business incubator.

The Innovation Trail is taking a look at how the thousands of refugees coming to upstate New York are weaving their way into the region's economy. You can find more from the series here.

Jai Subedi holds court at his Asian grocery store on Syracuse’s Northside. He’s behind the counter ringing customers up and simultaneously fielding phone calls. All the while giving advice to other refugees about how to deal with various agencies. He opened the store earlier this year with the goal of making it more than just a market.

"Let’s make this one as a home," he said. "You don’t have to buy to come to my store. Just come, stay and hang out and talk because a lot of people come here and they just chat, they talk. And I like that."

Subedi came to Syracuse five years ago as a Bhutanese refugee living in Nepal and has risen to become an influential member of the community.

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
Jai Subedi, a Bhutanese refugee, opened an Asian market on Syracuse's Northside this year.

A growing Asian population on the Northside means Subedi’s Asian market isn’t the only one in the neighborhood, but he doesn’t mind the competition.

"It’s a freedom and they can enjoy the entrepreneurial life," he said of other store owners. "It’s good for the community. Because they can pay taxes, the economic growth will be raised, people will get jobs."

Like everyone else looking to start their own businesses, refugees have to navigate complex U.S. bureaucracy.

"Everything have to be within the FDA rules and regulations, everything has to be within USDA rules and regulations," Subedi rattles off.

That wasn’t the case for the small store his father ran back in the refugee camp. When they arrive in America, refugees don’t usually have savings accounts or credit scores, so getting bank loans is tough. They often lean on friends and family to lend startup money.

Closed doors

A few blocks away from Subedi’s grocery store is the restaurant started by Muheyidin Mohamoud, who came from Somalia three years ago. Language remains a big hurdle and as Mohamoud noted, that makes all the usual challenges that much harder.

"If you don't know how to speak English well, every door is closed for you."

"We tried to get money, but if you don’t know how to speak English well, every door is closed for you. You can’t open it, but if you know how to talk well you can open every door; you get help."

Over the course of several visits to the African International Restaurant, friends and other Somalis would stop by, but the kitchen never seemed to be very busy.

The restaurant, along the Northside’s main business corridor is still there, but Mohamoud no longer owns it. Months before, he seemed wary of this possibility, but optimistic.

"Nobody know the future, what is going on, but I’m dreaming to go up and we try what we can do."

"Unfortunately I have noticed with my own eyes, businesses opening and closing within the same storefront multiple times and probably with multiple owners," said Frank Cetera, a small business advisor working on the Northside.

Cetera said refugees he works with want to create the life they envisioned for themselves.

"Now, whether they succeed or not is due to a lot of other factors besides their actual willingness and passion and desire to do so," he said.

More support

Cetera and others are working to provide more support, namely through a new small business incubator targeting immigrants and minorities called UP Start.

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
Fesseha Kahsay, a refugee from Ethiopia, who wants to open his own earth management business.

One evening this fall, Fesseha Kahsay softly finishes his business pitch to a handful of fellow entrepreneurs and mentors. He gets a round of applause and then some feedback. The real presentation to a few hundred people is a couple of days away.

Kahsay arrived in the U.S. from Ethiopia a quarter century ago. He earned an associate degree and then worked for 17 years making surgical needles. His job has just been outsourced, so he’s decided it’s time to pursue his passion, earth management.

He has modest expectations, just put bread on the table for his daughters. And like Mahamoud, he knows language will be an issue.

"Most of the time is, they see the first time you have an accent, you’re a foreigner, but when they know you, they trust you."

There’s one other challenge Kahsay foresees running a landscaping business here: all the snow. He doesn’t seem too worried about it though.