Columbus: The second Shangri-La

Chris Gaitten
From left: Walid Ali, Josephine Talieh, Tatyana Mindlina and Tara Dhungana at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport

Former refugees and immigrants have become an entrepreneurial class all their own, and Columbus has welcomed them-even in the face of rising political antagonism.

The decision to flee was not made lightly. First, Walid Ali's name and photo began appearing around Baghdad, alongside claims he was a spy. He quit his job interpreting for the U.S. Army and returned to his previous work-transporting cars from Jordan to Iraq-but the jihadists insisted he was still helping the American military. They murdered one of his neighbors, a fellow interpreter, and an acquaintance told Ali that he was on the same kill list; better to leave now. A bomb arrived at his front gate, a gift with faulty wiring that delivered a message but not its payload. He wanted to move in with his brother-in-law, but the jihadists kidnapped and ransomed Ali's nephew. It was time to go.

In 2004, he gathered his wife and young daughter and fled to Yemen, where he once taught English. He admitted his family as refugees to the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, hoping to be resettled in the U.S. They waited and waited-five years, as the painstaking bureaucratic process ran its course. Finally, in May 2009, they received approval. Ali looked at the destination on his plane tickets and wondered: What in the world is Columbus, Ohio? When he arrived in the terminal, he was surprised to find more than a dozen people waiting to welcome his family to their new home.

The new American entrepreneurship is foreign.

Ali's story of flight and exile illustrates an ongoing, unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The UNHCR has classified more than 21 million people as refugees, among more than 65 million who've been displaced worldwide. Less than 1 percent ultimately resettles in new countries. The United States accepted 69,933 refugees for resettlement in 2015, more than the rest of the world combined. From 1983 to 2014, 16,596 refugees were resettled in the Columbus metro area, according to the "Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio Report," which was published in 2015 by the city of Columbus, local resettlement agencies, Columbus State and Community Research Partners.

The moment refugees arrive in Central Ohio, they are transitioned into their new lives by three Columbus resettlement agencies: US Together, World Relief Columbus and Community Refugee and Immigration Services, or CRIS. It's a monumental task. Former refugees have lost the support system provided by families and communities, and sometimes family members are still at risk abroad. Nadia Kasvin, co-founder of US Together, cites a report from the Center for Victims of Torture that estimates the prevalence of past torture among refugees may be as high as 44 percent, and she says that many have suffered trauma and gender violence.

They find themselves in a precarious position, but their presence here has become crucial to both the city's identity and the local economy, as demonstrated by the "Impact of Refugees" report. Culling data from focus groups, interviews and multiple surveys, the report estimated that former refugee households spend about $36 million annually in the metro area and contribute $1.6 billion per year to the economy in Franklin County. Among employed former refugees, 13.6 percent are business owners, more than twice the countywide rate of entrepreneurship.

It's indicative of a larger trend-foreign-born Americans have become an increasingly active and vital entrepreneurial class. A February 2015 article from Inc. magazine reported that immigrants now start a quarter of the country's businesses despite accounting for only 13 percent of its population. A joint study called "New Americans in Columbus" found that while the number of native-born entrepreneurs decreased by 1.2 percent in Columbus from 2007 to 2012, the foreign-born numbers skyrocketed by 41.5 percent. The challenges they face are extensive-language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, unfamiliar regulatory rules, instability in their residencies-yet they're undeterred. The refugee impact report estimated that former refugees own 873 local businesses.

That report serves a purpose beyond just revealing entrepreneurial trends, though; it's also aimed at quieting a chorus of anti-refugee and anti-immigrant political voices. Backers hope that the statistics-combined with stories like Ali's-will reaffirm the importance of their mission.

"For years, really, refugee resettlement had bipartisan support because providing safe haven and providing opportunities to somebody, to the most vulnerable in the world, is the right thing to do," Kasvin says. "And all of a sudden we found ourselves in a situation when we-for the first time in more than 20 years-had to defend what we do."

Refugee is not an identity.

In the mid-1980s, the government of Bhutan instituted a new policy aimed at expelling the country's ethnic Nepali people, despite the fact that many of them, like Tara Dhungana's family, had been there legally for generations. His family fled to a refugee camp in Nepal when the government cracked down. After graduating high school in the camp, where he was confined with more than 20,000 other exiles, Dhungana was able to sneak out to a nearby city and live among the native Nepali. He acquired his bachelor's and master's degrees and landed a job, working until he was approved for resettlement in February 2009. He'd been a refugee for nearly 20 years.

As with all former refugees, a resettlement agency coordinated the first 90 days of Dhungana's new life in Columbus. The resettlement process eases them into an alien society while pushing toward self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. Agency workers pick them up at the airport, arrange housing, connect them with social services and refer them to the county's work participation program. They also provide employment and language classes. Former refugees are given $1,125 per family member, minus the amount spent on their behalf beforehand to pay deposits and purchase household items.

Even with resources from the government, resettlement agencies, charity organizations, churches and volunteers, the transition is anything but easy. Dhungana had never driven in his life and had no access to personal transportation. He and his wife both have master's degrees, but neither had manual labor experience. They landed part-time jobs at FedEx in Grove City despite lacking the skills for that work; he didn't know what a pallet jack looked like, let alone how it was used. The couple started their workdays at 1 a.m., cracking their nails and scratching their hands on the never-ending flow of boxes, the nicks made worse by the Ohio winter.

"We literally cried for weeks together," Dhungana says. "If there was a way to abruptly leave the country and go back, at some point we would have done it." He speaks softly in the offices at CRIS, where he now works full time to manage an employment program for the newly resettled. Former refugees frequently return to work for one of the three agencies, providing steady employment for themselves and desperately needed language skills and cultural knowledge for the next set of arrivals.

"They understand. They can relate to the experience," says Kay Lipovsky, the director of World Relief Columbus. "They may be able to have conversations on a deeper level [that] we would not be able to have because they've had that experience."

Former refugees Nadia Kasvin and Tatyana Mindlina went a step further, founding their own resettlement agency, US Together. Both women left their homes in the former Soviet Union because of Jewish persecution, arriving in the U.S. in the early 1990s. They originally started US Together in 2003 as a community organizing entity within the Russian-speaking population, but they quickly realized there was latent demand for refugee services and pivoted the organization toward resettlement needs like interpretation and integration.

CRIS' executive director Angela Plummer says that employment at the resettlement agencies can be a stepping stone on a former refugee's path, as it was for Dhungana. In 2010, a year after first getting a job at FedEx, he was hired by CRIS to work with the fast-growing Bhutanese Nepali community in Columbus, which is now the largest of its kind in the nation. Just a year later, he and two others from that community opened their first business, a grocery store for their fellow expats longing for the traditional ingredients of Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, China and India. They called it Shangrila Corner Store; for them, a small piece of Himalayan paradise. Shangrila was an opportunity to serve a growing population, but it was also about taking back ownership of a life forced into limbo.

"I think there's a loss of identity for a lot of them, especially [those] who define themselves by who they were back in the home country," Plummer says. She offers an example: Iraqis often introduce themselves by handing her a resume. "You know, 'I'm not just this refugee you picked up at the airport-I'm this person.'"

Self-reliance is a prized trait.

Walid Ali dreams of teaching English. He taught it once, in Yemen, before he became a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq and his life was threatened. He was probably traumatized when he arrived here, he says, but his transition to Columbus was fairly smooth. He was delighted by his welcoming party at the airport, which included CRIS workers and a family from Worthington United Methodist Church, who helped him start from scratch. His first question to them: Do you know if I will find a job in the United States or not?

Within two months, CRIS placed him with the housekeeping department at the Renaissance hotel Downtown. By December 2009, only seven months after arriving, he was working at CRIS to coordinate services for other Iraqi refugees. He pursued his master's degree in foreign and second language education at Ohio State University while continuing to work for CRIS. OSU offered him a job after graduation, but it wasn't enough to make ends meet. In fact, there seemed to be no jobs available for using his degree. He considered leaving the country.

The lack of jobs for highly educated and skilled former refugees and immigrants-like all those featured here-is a problem. Their degrees and certifications often don't transfer, and most of the employment available to them is low-wage work. The city of Columbus and US Together both have made it a priority to link them with jobs that better use their employment potential. In the meantime, many of them are starting companies instead.

That was the path Ali chose, opening his own residential construction company, Across the States, which draws on his training at an Iraqi technical school years before. He needed financing-a pressing issue for many foreign-born entrepreneurs-to purchase tools and a truck, so he turned to the Economic Community Development Institute, a nonprofit small business microlender based in Columbus.

Inna Kinney, ECDI's founder and CEO, understood his situation well. She fled Moscow in 1974 when she was 11, and her family was among the first from the former Soviet Union to move here. She watched her father and his friends start businesses and saw too many entrepreneurs from their community fail due to a lack of credit, training or understanding of American business culture. She started ECDI in part to address those concerns, and she says approximately 25 to 37 percent of the organization's lending and services go to immigrants and former refugees.

"It's hard enough for an American-born individual to get a loan from a bank, let alone somebody that speaks a different language, has a different culture and frankly doesn't have any credit or business history," she says. "Banks are very leery of startups as a whole, let alone home-based businesses or somebody that's from another country."

Josephine Talieh is another beneficiary of ECDI's loans and services. She originally came from Cameroon in 1994 as part of the Columbus International Program, a nonprofit global exchange that attracts professionals from around the world. She eventually settled in Columbus-after a return trip to Africa to complete the program-because she got married while she was here, and then she got a job as a registered nursing assistant.

Talieh was part of the first major movement of immigrants from Africa to Columbus, and others who wanted good jobs like hers constantly sought her advice. She realized she could open a business to train and place them in patients' homes herself, and she went to ECDI to get matching funds to purchase equipment. In 2002, she founded Easton Healthcare Inc., which has since spun off two more related businesses: Easton Healthcare LLC and Easton Providers. Between the three companies, she currently has 119 employees, most of whom are natural-born citizens. She has taken out six ECDI loans and repaid five of them, she says proudly.

Kinney thinks immigrants are more likely to start businesses because many of them hail from nations where middle-class jobs are harder to find, making self-reliance a prized trait. Talieh, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, echoes that sentiment.

"Africans are the kind of people that when they have that opportunity, they make use of it," she says. "If you can even succeed a little bit with so [many] difficulties, like we face in Africa, then why not America when every door is open?"

It takes a village.

When Samuel Ryo was 10, the 1998 Asian financial market crash hit Indonesia especially hard, toppling its authoritarian leader Suharto. Ryo's family is ethnically Chinese, an influential minority in Indonesia that has often been a scapegoat during times of upheaval. Ethnic violence broke out, and his family fled their home in the capital of Jakarta. They relocated to Singapore, where he lived until he graduated high school, and then he came to the U.S. on a student visa. After stops in Mississippi and Texas to get his undergraduate degree, he came to Ohio State to pursue his master's in food science. While at OSU, he met fellow Indonesian expats Winny Tan, Sean Tan and Niko Questera.

Inspired by a mutual love of coffee, the group founded Lokal Cold Brew in 2015 (the other three have since relocated outside Columbus for their separate careers). They source the coffee from farms in Indonesia, and it's roasted and cold brewed here. They design the labels on the bottles to resemble batik, traditional Indonesian textile patterns. Their full-time jobs allow Lokal to play a different role for them than most immigrants, and Ryo speaks in conceptual terms, of striking the delicate balance between assimilation and integration, of wanting the business to represent the common ground inhabited by all who live here.

"It's to kind of show people that we're all the same," Ryo says. "There's so much ugly rhetoric about immigration, refugees, that it's just-what is it? You know, it's not real, it's not true. This is who we are. We're just people, too."

The founders' careers also allowed them to fund Lokal themselves, a common practice among immigrants. Dhungana and his partners started Shangrila without taking on any debt. They sold the store to another group from the Bhutanese Nepali community in 2014, and in February 2016, he and seven others opened a Nepali, Indian and Tibetan restaurant in Gahanna called Himalayan Grille, again without taking loans. Somalis often use the practice of shalongo, a collective savings system among a group of people, to provide interest-free funds for new businesses. Global Mall on the city's northeast side is a prime example of Somali entrepreneurship-barbers, tailors and halal grocers under one roof.

"I think there's a different mentality about spending and luxury and need, and so that also contributes to their readiness and availability to open a business," says Guadalupe Velasquez, the assistant director of the city's Community Relations Commission and a coordinator for its New American Initiative. Columbus rolled out that initiative in 2005 with the goal of linking city services to the ever-expanding population of immigrants and former refugees. The initiative was one of the country's first, Velasquez says, and the city has become a global leader in best practices for welcoming immigrants.

The foreign influx comes with costs and challenges, though. It can place stress on social services and public assistance providers, at least in the short term. Abdikhayr Soofe, the other initiative coordinator and a former refugee from Somalia, says finding housing for families with five or more members can be difficult because Columbus doesn't have enough affordable stock that size. As the city grows more diverse, the school system also has to adapt to the changing demographics, providing more teachers of English as a second language (ESL) in a wider variety of dialects. An NBC4 segment from February reported that more than 100 languages are spoken in Columbus City Schools, which also ranks first in the state for its ESL program.

Each year, the resettlement agencies have consultations with Columbus officials and community partners to determine the city's capacity to resettle certain populations, as well as quarterly meetings mandated by the U.S. State Department to report any barriers to resettlement or deterrents to quality of life. The goal is to ensure there isn't resentment from the community or from service providers, says Angela Plummer from CRIS. But resettlement numbers can fluctuate greatly from month to month, making it more challenging. And former refugees sometimes move from their original place of resettlement to another city-called secondary migration, common in Columbus' Bhutanese and Somali communities-which adds complexity to planning because it's beyond any agency's control.

The regular consults to prevent and address resentment hint at the pressure on the refugee resettlement program. The scrutiny now facing resettlement and immigration is more intense than it's been in decades, fueled by the Syrian refugee crisis and an overheated presidential campaign.

The product is a message.

Plummer offers a tour of CRIS' headquarters on a sweltering day in August, describing the layout of the nondescript brick building as "a complete labyrinth." In one room, elderly women eat a rice dish with their fingers; Bhutanese in traditional garb work on computers in another. An employment classroom has cleared out for lunch, with thick binders resting on empty desks. Two men lay mats on the floor and kneel down in prayer.

August and September are the busiest months for resettlement agencies because it's the end of the fiscal year, and there's a push to meet the annual target number of refugees. President Obama committed to bringing 85,000 to the U.S. for 2016, including at least 10,000 from Syria, and the three local agencies are expecting record numbers in the waning months of summer. The average capacity for US Together is 40–45 people per month; the agency had 122 arrivals through the first three weeks of August. There's typically a two-week moratorium on resettling at the end of the fiscal year, but Kay Lipovsky from World Relief says they're forgoing it to try to meet the goal.

"And I think, too, there were security holds with certain populations, which you can imagine," Lipovsky adds, regarding the spike in late arrivals. "So the extreme vetting is already happening."

Syrians have become the flashpoint in the refugee debate, prompting calls for "extreme vetting" from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, despite the fact that most already wait two to three years while undergoing many rounds of interviews and security screenings before arrival. The presidential election, and the potential for hardline refugee and immigration reforms, casts a long shadow over the resettlement work. Plummer says she attended a recent meeting in which Muslim mothers relayed their daughters' school experiences. The girls' peers had been telling them that their families were terrorists, and that they will have to go home if Trump is elected.

The Republican nominee is riding a tide of xenophobia and political backlash against refugees that began several years ago. The "Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio Report," which confirmed the foreign-born entrepreneurial trend, exists as a direct result of that nativist fervor.

Between 2010 and 2012, Georgia, New Hampshire and Tennessee all made attempts within their state governments to halt resettlement, as described in "Resettlement at Risk," a policy paper from HIAS, one of the nine national resettlement agencies. HIAS offered a $6,000 grant to the three Columbus resettlement agencies as part of its Linking Communities Project, an effort to limit the backlash. The local agencies decided to use the money for an economic study, and the city of Columbus provided additional funding and resources. The report is an attempt to fight the stereotype of former refugees as a burden-as only takers of jobs and social services-to sway those on the fence through economic data backed by humanitarian stories.

"The product is a message," Soofe says. "The message is: The refugees and immigrants do, in fact, contribute and make our community a better community."

Some immigrants and refugees say they have encountered racism or xenophobia here-though others are adamant that they haven't-but they all generally praise Columbus as a welcoming and inclusive city. Plummer says that most residents have been supportive, even offering to host Syrian families in their homes. They are beginning to arrive now, with 150 Syrians coming to Columbus during the 2016 fiscal year, though the most common countries of origin are still Somalia (530) and Bhutan (512). The refugee resettlement program continues to set ambitious goals-President Obama put the target number at 110,000 refugees for fiscal year 2017. As one of the leading cities for newcomers, Columbus will resettle its share.

The refugee impact report makes its case for why the short-term cost associated with resettlement leads to long-term city prosperity, but many of those involved feel compelled, not just by economic policy, but by moral imperative. "It's the right thing to do," says Carla Williams-Scott, the director of the Department of Neighborhoods, which oversees the New Americans Initiative. "It's the right thing to do."

Inside a corner office at CRIS, Walid Ali smiles when he introduces himself-an easy, genuine smile. When he first arrived in the U.S., he didn't know much about the culture, like what it meant when people said hello and smiled at him. Now he knows, and he smiles frequently. He also talks about his love for many things. He loves Chris Hogg, the trainer who taught his employment classes at CRIS and showed him how to succeed in the job market. He loves his first job in America, at the Renaissance hotel-a great job. He still loves his homeland of Iraq, though not all of its people, just some.

And he loves the English language. Ali imagines himself in front of a classroom teaching it someday. That's his dream. For now, he runs his construction business, and he's responsible for his family. He decides how much to work and how much to earn. He's made a life in Columbus, his home, by using his skills, by creating his own company. And yeah, he loves that, too.

Where Refugees are coming from

Countries with the most refugee resettlement arrivals to Columbus for the fiscal year 2016:

1. Somalia

2. Bhutan

3. Iraq

4. Syria

5. Democratic Republic of Congo

6. Myanmar (Burma)

7. Afghanistan

8. Eritrea

9. Ethiopia

10. Sudan

Sources: CRIS, US Together, World Relief Columbus

Ohio Counties where refugees resettled, 2002–2014

Franklin: 49%

Cuyahoga: 21%

Summit: 16%

Hamilton: 6%

Montgomery: 6%

Rest of Ohio: 2%

Number of Refugees resettled in Franklin County, 2002–2014

2002: 81

2003: 309

2004: 915

2005: 1,147

2006: 1,600

2007: 787

2008: 403

2009: 717

2010: 812

2011: 563

2012: 1,120

2013: 1,285

2014: 1,358

Source: "Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio 2015 Report"

Fighting Demographic Change

City officials say welcoming foreigners also bolsters Ohio's lagging population. The "New Americans in Columbus" report shows that foreign-born people accounted for 24.6 percent of the city's growth from 2007–2012.


2010: 770,407

2014: 811,943


2010: 409,221

2014: 392,114


2010: 300,165

2014: 297,117


2010: 291,851

2014: 283,932


2010: 202,814

2014: 198,492


2010: 11,512,431

2014: 11,560,380

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2010–2014

U.S. Refugee Admissions by year

The modern refugee admissions program in the United States began in 1975 and was standardized by the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. From 1975 to 2015, the U.S. admitted 3,252,493 refugees for resettlement.

1977: 19,946

1980: 207,116

2015: 69,933

Source: U.S. Department of State