A senior official with the U.S. Small Business Administration was on hand near the refugee haven of Clarkston on Friday to tout the accomplishments of a pandemic-era federal program meant to support immigrant and minority entrepreneurs. The visit came on the heels of World Refugee Day, which was celebrated on Tuesday.

“The stories of refugees are often ones of great tragedy, turmoil, and loss. … It’s our mission at the SBA to ensure that the American dream of business ownership can be a reality for everyone, regardless of where you come from,” said Mark Madrid, associate administrator for the SBA’s Office of Entrepreneurial Development, during a stop at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta.

In late 2021, the IRC received a $800,000 grant from the SBA’s Community Navigator Pilot Program. In collaboration with other DeKalb-based, immigrant-serving nonprofits – the Latin American Association, the Refugee Women’s Network and the Somali American Community Center – it supported 318 diverse small businesses with free business counseling, technical assistance, and help filling out applications for loans and grants.

On hand on Friday was Adja Mada Diakite, an immigrant from Ivory Coast, who in 2019 had launched a business selling juice beverages typical of West Africa. When the pandemic struck, Diakite said she tried applying for government relief, but her applications were denied because she “didn’t have all the knowledge” to properly fill out the forms.

Community leaders say stories like hers are common, and that many immigrant and refugee small business owners were unable to access the pandemic-era business subsidies that helped keep many of their competitors afloat – part of a longstanding struggle to access capital.

That was one of the catalysts behind the creation of the Community Navigator Pilot Program.

“Once we told [immigrant entrepreneurs] about the ecosystem of resources for small business owners, the feedback was always the same. ‘I didn’t know this existed. I didn’t know how to ask. I didn’t know where to go,’” said Jessica Rodrigues, economic empowerment program manager at the IRC in Atlanta. People were “turned away from the mainstream banks, they didn’t have the language capacity. … And that’s why this program is so successful.”

With the help of culturally and linguistically-appropriate mentorship, the 318 small businesses supported by the program in metro Atlanta were able to submit applications for capital through grants and loans totaling over $4 million. According to the IRC, roughly 150 jobs were created or retained locally as a result of the boost given to immigrant entrepreneurs.

Nimota Salami, a Nigerian immigrant and caterer by training, said a business coach from the IRC helped her register a sauce-making business and build credit.

“The IRC really helped my business to grow,” she said. “My goal is to see my product at Kroger, Publix [and] Sam’s Club.”

Both in Georgia and across the U.S., immigrants are overrepresented among the ranks of small business owners. In the state, foreign-born Georgians make up roughly 10% of the population, but they own an estimated 31% of all “main street businesses,” according to a report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Initiative, a left-leaning think tank.

“Refugees and immigrants arrive in the U.S. and bring invaluable knowledge and skills and talents to the American workforce,” said Justin Howell, the IRC in Atlanta’s executive director. He noted that supporting immigrant business owners will make them more likely to create jobs for others, generate tax revenue, and “strengthen local communities through entrepreneurship.”

World Refugee Day celebrations planned for Saturday

The Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA), made up of 23 local refugee- and immigrant-serving organizations, will hold a World Refugee Day celebration in Atlanta on Saturday, June 24. The event will feature music and dance performances, including from Ukrainian vocalist Liudmyla Zapukhliak and the Suwanee-based Laotian American Society. There will be speeches from Clarkston Mayor Beverly Burks and Georgia U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, among others.

10 a.m.-noon at 4170 E Ponce de Leon Avenue NE, Clarkston, GA 30021

IRC in Atlanta’s website (https://www.rescue.org/united-states/atlanta-ga) and phone number (404-292-7731)

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