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Refugee Programs Highlighted in National Catholic Register Article

This National Catholic Register article on refugees highlights how Catholic Charities organizations are helping refugees.


Catholics Help Refugees Build New Lives, One Small Business at a Time

Organizations around the country are helping refugees fulfill the American dream of success.

Nicholas W. Smith

LOS ANGELES — Donya Ghanbarzadeh arrived with her husband and two daughters four years ago in Los Angeles County as refugees from Iran who needed to build a new life. So when she heard a local Farsi radio station broadcast an announcement for a program offering training in home-based childcare, she immediately called.

“I had been doing childcare in Iran for about five years, and this was a great opportunity for me to continue what I love to do, which is working with children,” Ghanbarzadeh told the Register through a Farsi translator.

Through the program run by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, Ghanbarzadeh acquired the skills needed to run her own in-home daycare business and help support her family.

Across the country, Catholic organizations are helping refugees coming to the U.S. improve their lives and achieve the American dream through starting their own small businesses. The efforts reflect the spirit of Pope Francis’ historic address to Congress, where he asked the American people to “seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”

On June 30, the White House made refugee entrepreneurship a key employment component of its “Call to Action” effort, asking the private sector and nongovernmental organizations for help integrate refugees into the U.S. workforce and their new communities.

The Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) settles nearly 30% of refugees arriving in the U.S. each year, through coordination with diocesan affiliates, such as Catholic Charities. Resettled refugee families are assisted in quickly gaining housing and employment, among other services, but still face difficulties in adjusting to a new country after years of being without a home to call their own.

Newly resettled refugees face challenges pursuing opportunities for entrepreneurship: Without a credit score to get loans, fluency in English or knowledge of standard business practices in the United States, turning an idea into a successful business becomes much harder.

A number of Catholic resettlement organizations, however, have programs to address this issue, putting refugees on the road to small-business success. Several Catholic Charities offer microenterprise development courses, which focus on starting a business with fewer than five employees. Aside from helping a family to gain economic self-sufficiency through owning their own small business, these programs assist them in becoming an integral part of their local communities by enabling them to pursue their dreams.

Childcare Businesses

For the past four years, the Central Intake Unit (CIU) at Catholic Charities of Los Angeles has helped refugee women start their own in-home childcare businesses. After a training course that includes classes in early childhood education and an internship, the women in the program get help as they work toward becoming registered with the state of California to offer home-based childcare.

Around 80 women have finished the program, according to Brenda Thomas, the director of CIU. Between 50 to 60 women subsequently have become licensed to provide daycare for families.

Thomas told the Register that the childcare training program provides an opportunity for mothers, if they have young children, to stay home while making an income.

Ghanbarzadeh, one of the graduates of this program, said her husband and children “are very supportive, and they are very proud of me, that I am successful in this business.”

Ghanbarzadeh, who currently provides care for four children, said, “This is truly the greatest opportunity for someone like me who loves to work with children, to take care of them and to teach them. The greatest part of this business is that I can stay home and take care of my own children and, in the meantime, do my own business from home and earn money.”

Thomas said that her department has considered expanding the model to other types of business in the future.

“People who come to the United States are very interested in being successful,” Thomas said, “and this program really provides the means for them to move forward with a career.”

Small Farms in Kansas

Since 2008, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas has partnered with Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit for local farms and farming education, to form a four-year farming training program for refugee women. The program, called New Roots for Refugees, teaches them about the local climate and market demand for produce, and also leads them through the necessities of business, like applying to farmers’ markets or collecting sales tax.

Out of the program’s 17 graduates thus far, 13 women are still farming and selling their produce in the Kansas City area, and nine of them now own their own farmland.

Meredith Walrafen, a program coordinator at New Roots for Refugees, told the Register that first-year students average $1,500 to $3,000 per year in sales and increase their incomes from there: By the time they graduate, they are selling $8,000 to $12,000 per year.

She said that while the farming income is not enough to support a family, it remains a “really successful way to supplement their family’s income.”

Several of the women have husbands employed full time at a local meatpacking plant, with incomes in the mid to high $20,000 range.

“Adding $10,000 annually to their family income is hugely significant,” she said.

The benefits extend beyond the economic. The farmers grow food for their families and also form more connections in their communities. Walrafen says that while refugee resettlement can be an isolating experience, “Community comes really easily out of food.”

“Food and community are closely tied, and having people grow food and then go out to buyers naturally leads to building community,” she said.

Small Business Brings Success

Microenterprise initiatives assist in creating small businesses that beat national averages for success rates, according to the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. Much of that can be attributed to the close personal relationships that these local initiatives foster, explained Mabel Alarcon-Craven, director of the Microbusiness and Asset Development Program at Catholic Charities of Omaha, Nebraska.

Alarcon-Craven’s office provides business education, technical assistance, microloans and financial counseling to those seeking to start their own small business. The success of clients is paramount.

“If we can do it, we do it,” she told the Register. “If we don’t know, we research and find out the answer, and help the clients with whatever they need.”

If a loan payment does not come in, her office will check in with the people they serve to see if the repayment schedule needs to be adjusted. But the relationship is personal. Alarcon-Craven emphasized that “we don’t have only the individual who is coming here — we have the whole family. We have businesses that started with us 10 years ago that are selling more than $1 million now. These people started with relatively little capital, and they never dreamed they would be able to do it.”

Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) in Texas had its first microbusiness development class meet in September. The new program, which is still in its test stages, came as a response to clients in other programs who desired to start their own business, but did not know where to begin.

Shannon Rosedale, public affairs and relations manager for CCFW, said that “small and local businesses are a definite benefit to the community. It’s something we believe in and want to help our clients do if that’s a passion of theirs. We want to make sure they’re doing it the right way, to be most successful. Some businesses do fail, and so we want to prepare our clients as best we can to avoid that.”

The program currently aims to mentor its clients in all aspects of starting a business, from the initial plan to marketing and branding. After graduation from the program, the relationship built through it continues.

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