For some refugees, a new start is a startup

Man serving dishes of food to customers in restaurant (Nameer Al-Rubaye)
Eritrean refugee Kibrom Milash opened a restaurant in Boise, Idaho, just 18 months after resettlement. (Nameer Al-Rubaye)

When refugee Imad Agh Morad landed in the United States after a harrowing escape from Iraq, he gravitated toward Detroit, where he knew there is a large Arab-American community.

He decided to test his fortunes in the Motor City. At a coffee shop with a Middle Eastern clientele, he heard about a small computer store for sale, then walked 8 kilometers to the shop and asked the owner to teach him the business.

Four months later, thanks to $13,000 in loans from two community-development groups, ACCESS and ProsperUS Detroit, Morad was the proud proprietor of My Computers & Phone. Today, he works seven days a week, but is thinking of opening a second store. “In my store, I meet a lot of people who just came to the U.S.A.,” he says. “I always tell them, ‘This is some country. Find a job — any job — and maybe you can open a store like me.’”

Startup help

The United States for decades has helped refugees start new lives, working through nonprofits to resettle and help them with paying rent, buying food and finding work.

Communities often stand ready to help. Some get grants from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to make microenterprise loans up to $15,000 and teach business skills to aspiring entrepreneurs. The resettlement agency also gives grants up to $4,000 matching what refugee families save on their own to start a business or make other investments in their future.

Kasra Movahedi of the International Rescue Committee says it typically takes refugees a few years before “they feel confident and secure enough to take that next step and explore entrepreneurship.”

But for refugees ready to launch a business, resettlement agencies are there to help them draw up business plans, obtain licenses and learn what U.S. consumers want. The committee has lent $2.4 million to hundreds of refugees in Phoenix, San Diego and Salt Lake City to start child-care businesses, become taxi and Uber drivers, open restaurants and more.

Case studies

Kibrom Milash, who spent five years in an Ethiopian refugee camp after fleeing Eritrea, opened a restaurant in Boise, Idaho, 18 months after arrival, with help from Jannus, a community development organization. He and wife Tirhas Hailu already had the entrepreneurial instinct. They had operated a restaurant in the refugee camp.

Milash worked two full-time jobs as a janitor and restaurant worker before opening Kibrom’s Ethiopian & Eritrean Food. He, too, encourages newcomers to “start at any job. It doesn’t matter. In America the system is totally different. Everyone needs time. And go to an organization like Jannus for help.”

Afghan refugee Farid Karimi got a loan from Opening Doors to launch his telephone and computer accessory store, Star Electronics, in Sacramento, California. He started at a flea market and now has a small warehouse and retail space. “I’m working hard, but working for myself is very good,” Karimi says. “Everything is in my hand. I make better money than working for somebody else.”