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As Ohio welcomes refugees, a nonprofit gives them a boost

refugee story photo 1.jpg
Michael Indriolo
/
The Land
Victor Harerimana, co-owner of Equity Language and Employment Services, sits on the porch in front of his home in Cleveland's West Boulevard neighborhood.

Victor Harerimana is a Congolese refugee who used the Microenterprise Development program to launch Equity Languages and Employment Services, a business he co-owns.

Hakizimana Muvunye, a refugee from Congo who lives in Cleveland, is a man doing his best. He’s the owner of Asante Landscaping but has only five clients so he also drives for Uber.

“I need to take care of my family,” he said. Muvunye and his wife, Irene Twizere, have five children.

Muvunye came to Cleveland in February 2016 from Uganda after fleeing armed conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now he’s striving to build his business. He’s counting on US Together, a nonprofit that provides services to refugees and immigrants, and especially its Microenterprise Development program to help him achieve this goal.

The program, which helps eligible refugees and immigrants develop, finance, and expand small businesses, was vital to starting Asante Landscaping. The staff helped Muvunye register the company with the Ohio Secretary of State and apply for loans that he needed.

Funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement for the past five years, the program has helped more than 30 entrepreneurs gain access to nearly $50,000 in startup capital and credit-building loans. In total, 89 participants have registered to start a business. Three local participants have opened brick-and-mortar stores, with a fourth on the way.

The partnership between US Together and the federal resettlement office is an example of how nonprofits and government agencies are working together here and in other regions, such as Buffalo, N.Y., to help as the number of refugees coming to the United States, especially from Afghanistan and Ukraine, is increasing. Welcoming new refugees and immigrants matters to the Midwest and other regions because they may help shift declining populations and boost local economies with new businesses.

US Together wants to expand what it does and who it serves, but right now it is working to find new sources of funding because the five-year federal grant that provided the program’s $70,000 annual budget expires in September. The nonprofit has applied to have the grant renewed.

“We have a little bridge funding available that might sustain us a few months past September,” said Evan Chwalek, economic integration coordinator at US Together.

Also the nonprofit is in the early stages of seeking other government and foundation grants to stabilize the program. Money from a new refugee-assistance program planned in Cuyahoga County could be tapped for help. And US Together hopes to partner with Global Cleveland, a nonprofit working to increase the number of international newcomers to the region, to eventually develop a business incubator program.

Joe Cimperman. president of Global Cleveland, says programs to help newcomers need support from all sectors.

“Programs like this should absolutely be supported and roundly invested in, and not just by the public sector,” Cimperman said. “We need to wake up to this. People tend to look at immigrants and refugees as charity cases. Let’s make it easier for them to make money and hire people.”

Shifting Demographics 

Cleveland, like many other Midwestern cities, has seen a decline in population over the years. According to the U.S. census, Cleveland’s population decreased by 6% over the past 10 years. Northeast Ohio lost 1.6% of its population from 2007 to 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

However, the number of immigrants and refugees coming to the region is increasing because of people fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine, said Maria Teverovsky, director of development at US Together. “We’ve had an unprecedented wave of migration in Northeast Ohio, coupled with an unprecedented migration crisis internationally,” she said.

Hakizimana Muvunye, a refugee from Congo who lives in Cleveland, owns Asante Landscaping, but also drives for Uber to pay the bills. US Together’s Microenterprise Development program is helping him build his business.
Christian Amuli
/
The Land
Hakizimana Muvunye, a refugee from Congo who lives in Cleveland, owns Asante Landscaping, but also drives for Uber to pay the bills. US Together’s Microenterprise Development program is helping him build his business.

Ohio ranked sixth in the number of refugees resettled in 2019, just behind states with larger populations like California, New York, and Texas. About 1,500 refugees resettled in Ohio in 2019, with about 500 coming yearly to Cleveland.

And as they arrive, many of them bring an entrepreneurial spirit. Studies show that refugees and immigrants are more likely than people born in the United States to start businesses. While migrants are 15% of the U.S. population, they represent 25% of entrepreneurs. Community Refugee and Immigration Services, a nonprofit in Columbus, says refugee businesses generate $605.7 million per year in economic impact in the Columbus region alone.

But other regions are competing with Northeast Ohio to attract new international residents and the potential for new businesses. According to a 2021 study by Cleveland State University, Cleveland ranks in the bottom third among other midsize U.S. cities in the number of foreign-born individuals. To increase the number of businesses owned by people of color, refugees, and immigrants, Northeast Ohio has to invest in efforts that support them, the study said.

“The only way we’re going to thrive is by welcoming international newcomers,” Cimperman said. “Yet it’s something we take for granted. Our economy depends on new bodies, new blood, new innovation.”

Baiju Shah, CEO of Greater Cleveland Partnership, the region’s chamber of commerce, says welcoming refugees and immigrants is “a huge priority.”

“When people come over here from another country, how do we make sure we retain them?” he said. “Historically, we’re a region welcoming people from around the world and around the country. It has to be part of our strategy.”

Helping Refugee Entrepreneurs 

Victor Harerimana, co-owner of Equity Languages and Employment Services, is also a Congolese refugee. He used the Microenterprise Development program to launch his business.

Harerimana came to Cleveland after spending 20 years in Uganda, where he was an elementary school teacher. He chose to start an interpretation business after working as an interpreter at Catholic Charities in Cleveland. US Together’s development program helped Harerimana apply for a $1,200 loan for his business. “We were able to operate in Ohio and New York and make money to help us continue,” he said.

In Buffalo, the Office of Refugee Resettlement also provided money to a nonprofit to help refugees start businesses. In 2018, Journey’s End Refugee Services created the Buffalo Refugee Child Care Microenterprise Project to assist refugees from Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Rwanda, and Somalia. They started child-care businesses using a $562,500 grant from the resettlement office.

In an interview with the Buffalo News, Carolynn Welch, executive director of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, said the immigrant and refugee population has revitalized some neighborhoods. “We’ve seen the economy grow as opposed to continuing to stagnate,” Welch said.

In the Cleveland area, Cuyahoga County leaders recently issued a request for proposals to help fund organizations that provide social services, employment services, and legal services to refugees and immigrants. The county expects to award a total of $1 million over three years.

Meanwhile, US Together wants to expand its development program to serve new populations, especially legal immigrants who don’t yet have refugee status, Teverovsky said. In addition to applying for grants, officials at the nonprofit are working with Global Cleveland to explore creating an incubator to offer help and resources to new businesses.

They are looking for long-term funding options and a strategy that helps them serve more potential business owners beyond who they can help now due to state and federal regulations.

“When we think about our business strategy going forward, we’re mainly considering how to expand our services to broader immigrant populations and increase our financial limit on small business loans,” said Evan Chwalek of US Together. “Due to regulatory limits within the state of Ohio, we’re unable to lend more than $5,000 to our clients. Increasing that ceiling would be really helpful to us as we’re hearing from lots of potential entrepreneurs, particularly in the transportation sector, who require more capital to get their businesses started.”

Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She’s the author of two books and hundreds of articles on diversity, equity, and sustainable travel. As an active member of the Society of Travel Writers, she takes press trips that prioritize travel that has an eco-tourism angle or human-first focus. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate. 

Reporting for this article is part of a Chronicle of Philanthropy fellowship with local news organizations and was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy.

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEOSoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including Ideastream Public Media.

Updated: July 19, 2022 at 1:16 PM EDT
This story, originally published on May 20, 2022, has been updated.