Fresh starts and fiscal success: refugee businesses are booming in Salt Lake City

Story and graphics by DANNY O’MALLEY

Refugees are opening new businesses and bringing new solutions to Salt Lake City, thanks largely to the International Rescue Committee and other local organizations that coordinate resettlement.

“The refugee and immigrant community has a higher rate of entrepreneurship than natural-born citizens,” said Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of development and strategic initiatives at the International Rescue Committee office in Salt Lake City.


Her eyes light up when talking about the growth she has seen. While no one may be able to quantify the exact figures, she estimates that dozens of businesses owned and operated by refugees have opened since 2012.  “They’re a thread that weaves through the community and brings us closer together,” she said.

Immigrant-owned businesses in Utah employed over 31,000 people in 2007, according to a report from the Partnership for a New American Economy. Another NAE report shows that refugees and immigrants brought an estimated $56.3 billion of spending power to the national economy in 2015. They paid $20.9 billion in taxes.

Such colossal numbers also serve as a bittersweet reminder of greater struggles.


The global number of forcibly displaced people is over 65 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Refugees comprise nearly one-third of that number. On average, Utah takes in around 1,200 refugees per year through the two primary resettlement organizations: the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services, reports that the final fiscal quarter of 2017 brought less than half of the people expected.

“We take a capacity survey every year, and report that we can handle a certain number of cases. We only got 20 [assigned] for September. It’s normally more than 50,” he said. Utah is unlikely to receive any more refugees in 2017, although the groups within the state could help resettle many dozens more. The current administration is apathetic, the New York Times reported, to fixing the global humanitarian crisis through open doors. That story pointed out that the economic contributions of refugees were apparently censored by White House officials. The released document excluded anything but the cost burden presented by initial resettlement and government assistance. The White House is ignoring billions of dollars of income tax, discretionary spending and wages paid to employees by refugee business owners.

Fewer refugees means that fewer opportunities for integration of new ideas — not to mention potential jobs and workers — will arrive in the near future.

Batar said that about 85 percent of the refugees CCS works with are self-sufficient within six months, and generally start contributing to the local economy immediately. A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that refugees have higher employment rates than native-born citizens once they have lived in the U.S. for several years.

But as much as refugees want to work, they must be welcomed into a community to do so.

Batar, a Somalian refugee himself, is unwavering about this global plight of humanity. “It is the hardest thing a human being can ever do,” he said, referring to the journeys undertaken by refugees. “When you don’t have a choice, it doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as it’s a peaceful place,” he said, his voice firm and insistent.

“Someone may come with a myth in their mind of the United States providing everything,” he said, so instilling new concepts like paying bills and making rent on time can take some adjustment. Programs such as those offered by the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Community Services and their partners are crucial for stability, smooth transitions and the livelihood of the community overall. Thanks to local initiatives, volunteer outreach and business incubators, refugees can start to lay a foundation for future success.

The Spice Kitchen Incubator has provided a hands-on educational workspace since 2012 to launch food service businesses. Refugees and underprivileged people prepare and profit from their native cuisines in a new place. With over 30 businesses introduced to the greater Salt Lake City region, including a baker’s dozen just since 2016, the results are unmistakably successful.

Ze Min Xiao, director of the Office of New Americans in Salt Lake County, has hope that the successes outweigh the challenges for the refugee population and the groups serving them. “Utah is doing relatively well compared to other parts of the country when it comes to refugee integration, but the situation always has room for improvement,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve recognized the need to ensure groundwork is laid down early for long-term opportunities,” including mentoring and business resources for immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs.

“Government agencies can’t do everything,” she said. “My office right now is just me and a temp. But we are convening outside stakeholders and bringing a vision together.” Those outside stakeholders include businesses employing or founded by many of the refugees in Salt Lake City. The chance to work with new arrivals every year demands big-picture thinking, as evidenced by the New Americans Task Force Welcoming Plan.

The community has a lot to give to refugees. But refugees have even more to give back, whether it’s tax dollars or cultural diversity. They just need a safe place like Salt Lake City to start.



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