Refugee Women Build Community in Buffalo Business Incubator
In a 3,000-square-foot space, a community hums with the energy of enterprise. Thirteen different languages resound, animated with a kindred sense of purpose. Seventeen independent businesses representing seven different countries combine to form an indoor village here, known as the West Side Bazaar in Buffalo, New York.
Immigration’s impacts on a community
To become an entrepreneur, one has to embrace certain characteristics. Flexibility. Creativity. The ability to address challenges. For a refugee, overcoming obstacles becomes a way of life.
More than 10,000 refugees have landed in Buffalo, also known as the “City of Good Neighbors,” over the past 10 years. Refugee settlers have provided a rebirth on the west side of the city, building new lives after leaving Burma, Laos, Nepal, Bhutan, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Ethiopia, among others.
The West Side Bazaar, a small business incubator for those looking to pursue the American dream, is an outpost of Buffalo’s Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), a nonprofit helping to create a thriving new community through business and educational programs. Vendors include a variety of food stalls from throughout the world as well as those offering art, beauty and skin care products, and other necessities. The Bazaar was created in response to a need for space in the growing area.
WEDI emerged to support the diversifying West Side community, says Ben Bissell, executive director. “We have four different national offices for refugee resettlement organizations – three religious, one secular – that help refugees resettle in Buffalo.”
Bissell also noted that refugees are not handed a free ticket from the U.S. government when they come to start a life here. Only 25 percent of WEDI funding comes from the government, and that only happened within the past 12 months following nine successful years. A diversified group of funders including individuals and corporations make up another 25 percent, while local foundations kick in that third quarter. The rest comes from earned revenue (loan interest, fees, rent, graduated rent). “The grassroots Buffalo bootstrapping support proved to New York State that these programs are extremely beneficial for community,” Bissell says.
Connecting through community
An overwhelming majority of women business owners hold court at the Bazaar—about 80 percent. Back in their home countries, many couldn’t realize such dreams.
“The good thing here, when you work here, you work with women from all over the world,” says Nadin Yousef, who sells her handmade, intricate macramé products at the Bazaar. “Every day you get experience about another culture, you meet people from different countries, it’s beautiful to learn more about these cultures.”
Yousef wakes up every morning for a 5 a.m. shift at the bakery of Wegmans grocery store. “It smells so good!” she says, laughing. Following her part-time shift, Yousef, 46, comes to the Bazaar and opens her business. Her customers can choose from jewelry, plant hangers, curtains or request their own made-to-order specialties.
“(In the beginning) my family, they worried a little bit, because it is not easy,” she says. “Now they are so proud and happy for me.”
Yousef applied for refugee status with her family from Iraq in 2006. They spent six years in Syria before migrating to Turkey. Finally in 2014, the family was granted entry into the United States. She and her husband could not work while they were refugees in Syria, and it was not easy migrating with four children.
The family aspect encouraged the Yousef family to move to Buffalo.
“When we applied for refugee status, they show you a few states, and they make you choose between Miami, Chicago, and Buffalo,” she says. “Buffalo is quiet and welcoming.”
In addition to her work at the bakery and the Bazaar, Yousef’s husband and high school-aged son also earn income working at Wegmans. Her oldest son attends school at University at Buffalo and works part time there, too.
Her two younger daughters want to go to college as well.
The business has provided the family with not only helpful income, but also a sense of community with their fellow neighbors. It also has helped to empower Yousef.
“You feel proud, and it is not easy, especially when you come from different culture,” she says. “Everything is different—it is not easy—but every day passes you feel more proud and more power.”
The impact of the Bazaar
“It’s an important anchor organization, definitely something that can be replicated,” says Michelle Holler, manager at the Bazaar.
Holler would love to see these efforts happen in other sanctuary cities, especially in the Great Lakes Region, similar to Buffalo.
“Because of the knowledge and data gained from the experience of the incubator business culture, a space like the Bazaar in Cleveland or Rochester could be really important and helpful for the community,” she says. “We are willing to help.”
Holler, a backpacker and world traveler, initially came to the Bazaar when she found herself missing the specific Southeast Asian cuisine from her travels.
“The Bazaar has really done its own marketing,” she says. “We’ve become a community meeting space. People from all different walks of life come here, whether because they miss a dish from back home, or (want to) feel like they are traveling.”
Holler says there are many reasons that the Bazaar has become so important to women. It provides them with not only an opportunity to share their stories of struggle with other refugees, but also a communal ability to lift each other up.
“If (you come here in) a big group as a refugee or immigrant, sometimes you just stick within your own community, and in many ways you are not being integrated,” she says. “The Bazaar has helped these women become community leaders. Nadin has been at the forefront of the Trump thing going on, and people come in all the time to interview her. She has been a strong voice. She has an outlet, and the Bazaar gave her that platform to do so.”
The Bazaar’s biggest success is also its greatest challenge. They simply are running out of space. Plans are already underway to open a second location to accommodate more of the entrepreneurs, who are hoping to get off the waiting list and share their own culture.
“We know the demand is there, particularly for the food, and we know we need to provide more opportunity,” Bissell says. “We have over 100 businesses in pipeline. We could take many of our restaurants to a new level, graduating to a new space with the Bazaar. The real big addition would be a commissary kitchen to include food trucks and food production … including sauces or spices not yet on market to produce locally for Wegmans, Tops, other grocery stores. We are looking forward.”