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Upstate New York’s cities take in around 90 percent of all refugees coming to the state. Since the 1970s, waves of refugees have helped arrest declining population and injected much-needed energy into their new communities.As refugees become more established they transform neglected neighborhoods, open new businesses and establish services to provide support for the next wave of arrivals. They also face several unique challenges.While studies put an overall positive spin on the economic impact of refugee arrivals, that doesn’t tell the complete story. We're taking a look at how these arrivals are weaving their way into the region’s changing economy.

Refugee communities diversify upstate business environment

Somali Community in Western New York

The desire for familiar food, clothing, and other products from home is spurring refugee communities in upstate New York to start their own businesses. In response, a group in Rochester has organized a six week startup business training course to help the Somali refugee community navigate the process.

“They can actually create their own little local economy where they can exchange, similar to what they had in Somalia,” says David Dey, president and CEO of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship.

“So what we want to do is import their ideas, and their needs and their desires, implant them here in the Rochester community, we’re in the north west side of the city. So this is their new economic base and our goal is to build that with them,” he said.

Dey says immigrants have been leaving their mark on upstate communities for decades, introducing new food, music, clothing and culture.

Now the Somali community has the opportunity to do the same in Rochester.

“Maybe there will be people who want to taste the food, understand the culture, the beautiful clothing, the colors that come from that community are going to be here and those are ways that people can get a little taste of Somalia right here in Rochester,” he said.

The six week course will cover everything from marketing and product pricing, to tax codes and business licenses.

Funding challenges

Sadiya Omar heads up the refugee resource center where the course is taking place. She says people in the community already have the work ethic. Seed funding is the biggest barrier they face.

“Back home we didn’t depend on anything like welfare, we did work so hard for our kids. We did small businesses her and there to raise our family," Omar said. "So it’s like we’re familiar with the business, it’s like we have the ideas but we don’t have the money.”

At the end of the course, people will have a chance to apply for small business loans from local group PathStone.

PathStone’s Hubert Van Tol says he hopes to see several viable business plans come out of the course.

“We make loans to start ups and we’re willing to do that. You know, some people within the Muslim community don’t do interest bearing loans so we’ll have to work around that issue. But we will be available to look at business plans to make small loans if the business plan is worthy of funding in the opinion of our loan committee.”

Van Tol says the legal side of running a business here will be unfamiliar to most. But he hopes a new wave of startups in the refugee community could help to revitalize the city’s downtown area.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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