As Ohio Welcomes Refugees, Nonprofit Gives Them a Boost

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CLEVELAND — Hakizimana Muvunye, a Congolese refugee who lives in Cleveland, is a man who does his best. He owns Asante Landscaping but only has five customers, so he also drives for Uber.

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

Muvunye arrived in Cleveland in February 2016 from Uganda after fleeing armed conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now he is striving to expand his business. He relies on US Together, a nonprofit organization 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 grow small businesses, was key to starting Asante Landscaping. Staff helped Muvunye register the company with the Ohio Secretary of State and apply for the loans he needed.

Funded by the Federal Office for the Resettlement of Refugees over the past five years, the program has helped more than 30 entrepreneurs access nearly $50,000 in start-up capital and credit-building loans. A total of 89 participants registered to start a business. Three local participants have opened physical stores, and a fourth is on the way.

The partnership between US Together and the Federal Office of Resettlement is an example of how nonprofit organizations and government agencies are working together here and in other areas, such as Buffalo, NY, to help the number of refugees. coming to the United States, especially from Afghanistan. and Ukraine, is increasing. Welcoming new refugees and immigrants is important for the Midwest and other regions because they can help relocate 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’s scrambling to find new sources of funding as the five-year federal grant that provided the program’s $70,000 annual budget expires. in September. The association requested the renewal of the grant.

“We have a small bridge funding available that could sustain us for a few months after September,” said Evan Chwalek, economic integration coordinator at US Together.

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

Joe Cimperman. president of Global Cleveland, says newcomer programs need support from all sectors.

“Programs like this absolutely need to be fully supported and invested in, and not just by the public sector,” Cimperman said. “We need to wake up to this. People tend to view immigrants and refugees as charitable cases. Let’s help them earn money and hire more easily.

Cleveland, like many other cities in the Midwest, has seen a decline in population over the years. According to the US Census, Cleveland’s population has declined by 6% over the past 10 years. Northeast Ohio lost 1.6% of its population between 2007 and 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

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

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

And when 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 make up 15% of the US population, they make up 25% of entrepreneurs. Community Refugee and Immigration Services, a Columbus nonprofit, says refugee businesses generate $605.7 million a year in economic impact in the Columbus area alone.

But other areas compete with northeast Ohio for new international residents and new business potential. According to a 2021 study from Cleveland State University, Cleveland ranks in the bottom third of other mid-size U.S. cities when it comes to the number of foreign-born people. To increase the number of businesses owned by people of color, refugees and immigrants, Northeast Ohio must invest in efforts that support them, the study found.

“The only way for us to thrive is to welcome international newcomers,” Cimperman said. “Yet it’s something we take for granted. Our economy depends on new bodies, new blood, new innovations.

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

“When people come here from another country, how do we make sure we keep them?” he said. “Historically, we are a region that welcomes people from all over the world and from all over the country. This must be part of our strategy.

Victor Harerimana, co-owner of Equity Languages ​​and Employment Services, is also a Congolese refugee. He used the Microenterprise Development program to start his business. He chose to start an interpreting business after working as an interpreter at Catholic Charities in Cleveland. The US Together program helped Harerimana apply for a $1,200 loan for his business.

“We were able to operate in Ohio and New York and earn 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 established the Buffalo Refugee Child Care Microenterprise Project to help refugees from Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Rwanda and Somalia. They started childcare businesses with a $562,500 grant from the relocation office.

Carolynn Welch, executive director of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, said in an interview with Buffalo News that the immigrant and refugee population has revitalized some neighborhoods there.

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 plans 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 financing options and a strategy that helps them serve more potential business owners beyond those they can help now due to state and federal regulations.

“Due to regulatory limits in the state of Ohio, we are unable to loan more than $5,000 to our clients,” said Evan Chwalek of US Together. “Raising this cap would really help us because we hear from many potential entrepreneurs, especially in the transport sector, who need more capital to start their business.”

Reporting for this article is part of a Chronicle of Philanthropy fellowship with local news outlets and was funded by a Lilly Endowment grant to improve public understanding of philanthropy. The Land is solely responsible for the content of this article. For all of AP’s philanthropic coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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