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Ohio agency that invests in immigrant businesses faces a funding crunch

refugee story photo 1.jpg
Michael Indriolo
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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.

Hakizimana Muvunye is a man doing his best. A refugee from the Congo, Muvunye is the owner of Asante Landscaping, where he only has five clients right now, so he also drives Uber.

“I need to take care of my family,” said the man with a wife and five children, who is also a pastor.

Muvunye came to Cleveland in February 2016 from Uganda after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Six years later, he’s striving for a more successful business so that he doesn’t have to drive Uber. He is counting on US Together Inc., a not-for-profit agency providing services to refugees and immigrants, and its Microenterprise Development (MED) program to help him in achieving this goal. But will MED be able to do so? The program that helps “eligible refugees and immigrants develop, finance, and expand small businesses” is threatened with closing when its funding runs out in the fall.

Muvunye said the MED program was crucial to starting Asante Landscaping. As a participant, its staff helped him register the company and get business cards.

For the last five years, the MED program has received $70,000 a year in federal funding from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), but the grant expires in September. US Together officials are working on replacing the funding, but they have yet to secure the money. The not-for-profit agency has applied for public and foundation grants to continue the program.

"We have a little bridge funding available that might sustain us a few months past September, but we're all working hard to ensure it doesn't come to that,” said Evan Chwalek, economic integration coordinator at US Together. “Everyone is aware of the opportunities to expand MED's reach in collaboration with other like-minded groups or the city, and we're very excited to see where that goes, too.”

Kylie Hislope, who started as the MED program coordinator in April, said that keeping the program running is vital to creating economic independence for local refugees. She wants to use her background in corporate finance and nonprofits to help refugees build sustainable businesses.

“Helping our participants to reach their financial milestones better positions them to … create financial independence and affords them growth and prosperity in their new home here in the U.S.,” said Hislope of the MED program.

Making a difference 

Started in Cleveland in 2018, the MED program serves refugees who want to build small businesses. The program provides training, loans, and technical help. The goal is for these businesses to help support refugees’ families.

The MED program has helped over 30 entrepreneurs gain access to nearly $50,000 in startup capital and credit-building loans. These businesses appeared at 21 farmers’ markets, flea markets, craft fairs, and arts and cultural festivals in 2021 alone. Three local participants have opened brick-and-mortar stores, with a fourth on the way. In total, 89 participants have registered to start a business.

Chwalek explained that the MED program is flexible and entrepreneurs can return for more assistance when they need it. “[The program] varies a lot depending on what kind of business someone is starting up,” he said.

Entrepreneurs can get help with tailoring their product for Cleveland audiences, setting up business plans, registering the business and obtaining documentation that it may need like permits, and applying for funding with grants and loans.

Muvunye wants to grow his small business large enough to support his family, but he needs help reaching potential customers, especially through social media pages like Facebook.

Victor Harerimana, co-owner of Equity Language and Employment Services, is also a Congolese refugee. He used the MED program to launch his business. Harerimana found himself in Cleveland after spending 20 years in Uganda both as a refugee and elementary school teacher. He’s always been skilled with languages and chose to start an interpretation business after working as an interpreter for Catholic Charities.

Harerimana said the program helped him to register the business and apply for a $1,200 loan.

“[The program] took us to where we [were] supposed to be,” he said. “We are able to operate in Ohio and New York and make money to help us to continue.”

Like Muvunye, Harerimana’s business does not bring in enough to support his family. Now, he said his business is in a position to grow. He is hoping the MED program will help him with building the customer relationships and connections that he feels he still lacks to be truly successful.

Hislope hopes to earn the trust of entrepreneurs and help them in making their small business aspirations come true by “being the connecting piece in their puzzle that catalyzes their business to grow from concept to profitable reality,” she said.

Refugees bring new life to Ohio

About 1,500 refugees resettled in Ohio in 2019 with most of them making their homes in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Montgomery, and Summit counties, according to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. While these displaced people came from over 20 countries, most were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Eritrea, and Afghanistan.

In fact, Ohio ranked sixth in the number of refugees resettled in 2019—and in previous years has ranked in the top five—just behind states with larger populations like Texas, California, and New York.

Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, which connects immigrants and refugees “to economic, social and educational opportunities in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County,” is an immigrant’s son who is dedicated to Cleveland’s diversity. “The problem is that we as a community have to realize that the only reason why we are having a fight in Columbus over one Congressional lost seat—instead of two—is because of immigrants,” he said. “We are not having the children that we once did.”

Cleveland, like many Midwestern cities, has seen a decline in population in the city center over the years. According to the US Census, Cleveland is down in population by six percent from the last 10 years. Cimperman spent his childhood in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood on the city’s east side. “The only way we are going to continue being a thriving place is by welcoming international newcomers,” he said. “Yet, it’s something that we too often in our region take for granted. It’s something our organization is trying to remind people. Too often it’s seen as a charity or crisis. The truth is our economy depends on new bodies, new blood, new innovation.”

Why is Ohio so popular? While refugees are sponsored by nonprofits and do not typically get to choose where they end up, Chwalek has some ideas. He said Cleveland is a place full of potential with empty storefronts that could be leased and developed.

Refugees who get jobs and become entrepreneurs can boost the economy. “One thing that [Ohio Governor Mike Dewine] has done incredibly is his support of refugees,” said Chwalek. “Cleveland has been a very welcoming place.”

Chwalek and Cimperman believe that keeping programs like MED is essential because they not only help refugees, but potentially assist in strengthening the local economy. Supporters of similar programs in other cities feel the same way.

In Buffalo, New York, a program similar to the MED program was implemented in 2018 through Journey’s End. It was called the Buffalo Refugee Child Care Microenterprise Project. Over three years, a $562,500 grant helped refugee entrepreneurs from Burma, Iraq, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Nepal to start their own child-care businesses.

In an interview with Buffalo News, Carolynn Welch, executive director of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, said the immigrant and refugee population has revitalized certain neighborhoods like Grant Street. “The community has become a safer community,” she said. “We've seen the economy grow as opposed to continuing to stagnate.”

Chwalek said programs like MED have already helped Cleveland’s revitalization. “Just about every corner of the city has a refugee- or immigrant-owned business,” he said. “From the east side with Nepali and Indian roots to Syrians setting up shop in Little Arabia to Habesha Ethiopian and Eritrean Restaurant on the far west side of Kamm’s, there’s a lot of success.”

US Together seeks volunteers and business mentors in any industry to support the growth of the Microenterprise Development program. Please follow this link to learn more about volunteer opportunities with US Together.

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. 

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.