Rise in immigrant-owned businesses helps US local economy

Laith Alrubeay parked his truck in front of his eastside Erie market shortly before 8 p.m. on Jan. 25, and immediately got to work. 

The 32-year-old Iraqi native and one of his employees had just returned from Detroit, where they picked up fresh produce from a West Coast food distributor that Alrubeay used to work with in California.

The truck was packed with tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers and eggplants, and much more, one of two weekly food hauls Alrubeay makes to Michigan, including runs to get breads, meats, fish and other groceries. 

As quickly as Alrubeay, his employee and a few relatives could unpack the truck and stock the shelves at Anwar's Fresh Meat Market, 2601 Parade St., customer after customer filed into the store. 

By night's end, more than 150 people from several different countries, including Sudan, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Nepal, had made purchases. 

"It's all word of mouth," Alrubeay, a husband and father of three young children, said of how his customers find out about when he's returning with food. "They know I'm coming with fresh stuff, food for their different cultures, and they tell friends. They tell everybody." 

When Alrubeay fled war-torn Iraq for the United States as a refugee in 2008, he landed in San Diego. He started in America, he says, "with nothing" but drive, determination and a strong work ethic. 

He operated an ice cream truck in San Diego for several months before starting a market similar to the one he has in Erie, which Alrubeay opened here in March 2016. 

"Yes, I'm doing well. I work sometimes 16, maybe 18 hours a day so everything can be right," said Alrubeay, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, who also speaks three languages: Arabic, English and Spanish. 

He only has one employee, and said he gets help in the store from friends and relatives from time to time. 

A healthy economy needs, among other things, to have independent businesses that thrive, and Erie's economy is far from thriving. 

Yet while a smaller-than-average piece of the current local economy comes from independent business owners, the region's immigrant and refugee communities have been starting businesses at a strong clip the past few years, according to Erie-area economists and leaders in the refugee community. 

Immigrants start businesses at twice the rate of the average U.S. resident, according to an analysis that came out of the Economic Research Institute of Erie's 2016 annual conference, an event this past July that highlighted how immigration has shaped both the local and national economies. 

"Immigration does more good than bad for the economy, that's for sure," said Ken Louie, the institute's director. 

He added that while there is no local data on immigrant and refugee entrepreneurship, anecdotally, the spike "is obvious." 

"I was driving on State Street the other day and saw an Asian grocery store that wasn't in that spot a year or so ago," said Louie, whose parents brought him to the U.S. from China when he was 4. 

Dylanna Jackson, executive director at the International Institute of Erie, 517 E. 26th St., for the past five years, said her agency has seen an uptick in refugees arriving here with business backgrounds from their home countries, most notably Syrians. 

Jackson knows of several institute clients who are planning to open businesses in the city this year, including coffee shops, grocery markets and jewelry stores, with the potential for much more refugee- and immigrant-owned business in the future. "It's the American dream for refugees. 

To be able to take care of your family and to own something that's yours. It's a big source of pride," Jackson said. 

"I think it's great that you have people coming to this country that want to contribute to the community. Erie is in a time of transition. It is trying to redefine itself. A big part of that will include immigrants and their businesses." 

Jackson said some immigrant-owned businesses here, like the UK Supermarket, 1105 Parade St., have crossed over from serving mostly Bhutanese refugees to now becoming "an anchor in the neighborhood for any resident." "Yes, (the market) has an ethnic flair, but they also sell milk, bread, eggs," she added. 

"That's crucial when there are no supermarkets in the inner-city." 

Bassam Dabbah, 35, a Syrian refugee who fled to the United States in 2009, was the head florist in a five-star hotel in Jordan. He also ran a profitable business coordinating events. But Dabbah, with a wife and four children, had to start from scratch when he came to Erie. 

He took a job in the floral department at the Giant Eagle supermarket in Yorktown Centre and eventually started his own flower shop in the city. 

Now he plans on opening a Mediterranean grocery store and bakery later this month at 12th and Wayne streets. "I think we will do well," said Dabbah, who also works as a program coordinator at the International Institute. 

His wife, Nibal Abdelkarim, of Israel, works as a chef at Habibi Mediterranean Cuisine, 127 W. 14th St. Both became U.S. citizens in 2015. 

"There are at least 60 to 70 families of Syrian refugees who have needs for Arabic foods that would be our patrons," Dabbah said of his coming market. "Foods you don't see at traditional Erie supermarkets." 

On a recent afternoon lunch hour at Anwar's Fresh Meat Market, Alrubeay waited on Sara Manom, 25, of the Sudan, and her daughter, Yasmeen, 4, the youngest of her four children. The mother and daughter ordered a shish kabob and side of rice, which Alrubeay prepared on the spot. 

While he cooked he also rung up groceries purchased by a Ukranian woman, some candy by two Iraqi children, and a couple of cans of soda from a lifelong Erie resident. 

His market is not big, but he features what he calls six departments in the store: butcher, produce, groceries, ready-to-eat meals, dishware and antiques. Alrubeay said he hopes to open another business next to his market this spring, selling antiques, carpets and more. 

"I really like the food he has here," Manom said of the market, of which she frequents roughly twice a week. "American food is OK, but I like to have the food and cooking spices I'm familiar with from back home." 

by Gerry Weiss

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