Flea market serves as "incubator" for refugee businesses

Mar 22, 2011

The West Side Bazaar is cash only kind of place, with a handful of tabletop storefronts where refugees peddle homemade goods and services.

The store’s owners – a small non-profit – hope their flea market approach will be a spring board for some merchants to get their own stand alone shops.

 “My name is Amira Kaleel. I’m Arabic from Palestine. ”

Amira Kaleel takes photos, mostly of weddings. Her college-age daughter taught her how to do it. And her client base shows the diversity of the neighborhood.

“I mostly work with Arabic people, Somali, Sudani. I don’t charge them a lot,” Kaleel says.

But Kaleel would like to expand her business. She says the West Side needs to appeal to the rest of Buffalo in order for the neighborhood, which is one of the poorest in the city, to truly improve.

“I hope we make more business here to make the street good. When you have business in the area, the area will be better,” Kaleel says.

An anchor for the neighborhood

That’s a view shared by the West Side Bazaar’s organizers, the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, or WEDI. Over the past decade, the organization has secured microloans, so that refugees could start their own businesses in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Bazaar is a new type of venture in the neighborhood, and pulling it off took years.

“[The merchants have] been waiting a long time and they have been very patient and then all of sudden we’re saying, ‘We’re opening'. Everybody had to figure out if their lives allowed it,” says WEDI’s Bonnie Smith.

Bernadette Niwemugeni was one of those folks. She, like most merchants at the Bazaar, has other jobs and must now fit the shop’s three-day work week into her schedule.

Niwemugeni wanted to help her recently-arrived mother, Julianne, get on her feet in America. They’re selling wood carvings and other trinkets imported from their native Rwanda.

“When I came here in Buffalo, I never [thought] I would sit down somewhere, and someone [would] buy something from me. It’s been amazing. We are making some money,” Niwemugeni says.

All of the merchants operate on a small scale. And like Niwemugeni, many are planning to send money to relatives who remain in their homelands. They’re not looking to get rich.

“I don’t want to say [that] a big shop for us [would be our dream]. No. But if it happened that’d be good. But as long as we sell something, I’m happy,” Niwemugeni says.

Business incubator, of sorts

WEDI hopes the Bazaar will be self sufficient in three years. Smith says, like any business, the shop is a risk. But she says her organization wouldn’t have invested in the store if it didn’t believe it would work. WEDI eventually whittled 30 interested refugees into the handful now in business.

“Some didn’t really have good ideas. They just knew that they wanted to be in business for themselves but they [didn't have] viable ideas,” Smith says.  “I can look around and almost predict who might become business owners away from this on their own. Because they’ll have grown to be able to do that."

According to Smith, a prime candidate to graduate from the Bazaar to her own place is Marta Sosa. Each day Sosa cooks large batches of Peruvian food and hauls them to the shop in catering trays.

“It’s my dream. It’s my dream to open the first Peruvian restaurant in Buffalo,” Sosa says. “The people can eat ... real Peruvian food, because it’s my profession."

Sosa already has a name picked out for her eventual eatery: “Pure Peru.” She’s says she’s willing to be patient, build a following, and let her food do most of the talking.

For the Bazaar, the results of its first year will tell whether or not the project is a success.  If they do well, organizers already have a new, larger location picked out.