Refugees Help Keep 'Business Alive' In Troubled US Cities

In Buffalo, the declining population saw a financial boost once the refugee population started growing. Could this serve as an example to other cities?

Syrian refugee carried bag of belongins on her head.

To a local market in Buffalo, New York, refugees aren't just potential consumers, they are the very lifeblood of the local economy.

Nadin Yousef is one of the individuals driving the local commerce in a way that helps everybody, and for that, locals are more than thankful.

The Iraq-born refugee makes and sells home décor items, such as wall hangings and dream catchers.

Using a technique known as "macrame," Yousef creates patterns and designs by knotting threads, something others like her in her home country are very familiar with.

“In Iraq, everybody did macrame, so I never thought of starting this business back home. When I came here, I saw that I could use macrame to make money,” she told United Press International.

But Yousef isn't the only refugee in the 3,200-square-foot enclosed market West Side Bazaar; others like Khaing Naing, a refugee from Myanmar, also found a home in Buffalo, and more specifically, in the open market.

Naing, who helps people file their income tax returns, said he serves both refugees and Americans.

“Most of my clients are refugees and immigrants — especially people who just moved to the city,” he told reporters. “It’s not limited to just refugees. I help anyone who needs a commercial tax preparer.”

Other businesses found at the bazaar include Ethiopian and Pakistani halal food booths, bright and colorful Sri Lankan and Sudanese cloths and accessories shops, and even some Chinese and Burmese food stands.

For the past 10 years, the city has received and helped resettle 10,000 refugees who are mostly from countries experiencing a great deal of conflict, such as Somalia, Myanmar, and Bhutan. As a result, nearly 23 percent of the city's metro population is now comprised of foreigners.

To the bazaar's manager, Michelle Holler, the market has helped the neighborhood by both creating demand for services and products that did not exist in the past, and by offering refugees the opportunity to stay busy and work hard to be independent once again.

“The local residents keep the business alive here,” Holler said.

Unfortunately, David Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative, said officials it's often difficult to make the case that refugees can prosper on their own once they are free to launch their own businesses.

“We don’t track refugees once they’re resettled in the country. There is data collected for the initial months of resettlement, but there is no centralized system to keep track of how refugees are doing after 90 days’ resettlement,” he explained.

If this data were to be collected, he continued, more insights could be provided, and policies could be shifted so that cities with a declining population could see a boost in their economy by simply requesting that more refugees resettle in their area.

If what's happening in Buffalo serves as an example of how much good refugees can do to a city, perhaps more lawmakers and officials will see the value in allowing local governments to set their own immigration policies.

And perhaps then, we could see a shift in how we approach the refugee issue, allowing for a more humane — and economically feasible — solution.

Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

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