Saturday, May 21, 2016

Today’s Immigrants are Tomorrow’s American Success Stories

During my career in food service I observed immigrants from all over the world coming to America. Wave after wave from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. And because the food business is the fastest place to find a job, that's where many of them first went to work. My observation was that among the first to arrive -- often refugees, not just migrants (and there is a difference) -- were many who were more ambitious or motivated than those who came later. Not always, but sometimes, they either came with money or had access to financial support from the places they left behind. This link reminds me of many examples. 

Migrants fleeing war in the Middle East have brought a vibrant culture and a trade revival to Sweden’s third city

Employee Said Mahmoud adds chicken to the
lunch buffet at Jasmin Alsham restaurant in
Malmö. Photo: Malin Palm for the Observer
When Fisal Abo Karaa stepped off the train in Malmö’s central station this time last year, exhausted after a long journey by train and boat, he looked like any other victim of Syria’s terrible civil war. It wasn’t until April, when Malmö’s main shopping street was filled with the sound of Syrian bagpipes, drums and dancing that he made his presence felt. The opening of Jasmin Alsham, his new restaurant, was the most visible sign yet of an unexpected injection of Syrian money hitting Sweden’s third city. Abo Karaa and his partners have invested a rumoured five million Swedish kronor (£400,000) converting what was once a Pizza Hut into a replica Damascene house. It is one of five Syrian restaurants to have opened in less than a year. “There are people saying that the Syrians have come and want to buy up everything,” says Ibrahim, a hairdresser and member of the Nahawand shisha smoking club, a meeting place for the city’s established Arab businessmen.
“There’s many, many Syrian people who want to move money to Sweden,” says Maher Alkhatib, from Damascus, who opened a restaurant last year. “I know people in the Emirates, they are asking me, ‘Find a good project so we can invest money’.” Abo Karaa’s family owned four factories in Homs exporting paper tissues all over the Arab world. “We have lost in Syria millions of dollars, and many assets,” his nephew Mohammed says.

Even while being trained to run a cheese store (my first real job) the one where I was going was being managed by a bright young couple from Europe, a French business student taking a break from grad school and his girlfriend. Their visas were ending, the owner needed a more permanent arrangement and I was a freshly-minted college graduate needing employment. Little did I know it would be the start of a forty-year career in the food business. (For the record, no one goes into the food business deliberately unless their family owns the business or they are among the small percentage of success stories, but that is a discussion for another time.)
I think most Americans have no idea how important immigrants are, not only to our economy but to others often receiving a significant part of their earnings. My own limited experience has included more immigrants than most and in most cases I have seen an impressive degree of entrepreneurship and creativity. My favorite is a Cambodian man who started as a dishwasher in the Seventies and became a sought-after sushi chef charging for coaching clinics and operating his own restaurant, like the example above. 
While I was still in the cheese business, one of my roommates was a young Korean who appeared on an Atlanta sidewalk one evening, the victim of a scam that brought him to America with the promise of what turned out to be a non-existent opportunity. Within a year he had got a job repairing business machines, bought a car and soon opened his own store repairing and retailing business machines. Too often we fail to appreciate that those we may imagine are at the bottom of the ladder are not important because they are doing menial jobs. But the reality is often that they are seriously under-employed for a variety of reasons, including language challenges and foreign educational credentials not recognized in America. In a few cases they come from well-established families with more assets than we may know, but they have come to America in search of different or better opportunities.
I went from retail/franchising imported cheese & wine to fast food. It became clear that my family would soon fall apart in that environment so I took a deep cut in earnings to start over -- learning the cafeteria business as (yet again) a “manager trainee” for the next four years. So yes, I personally experienced and witnessed the exploitation which occurs when those exempt from FLSA regulations are stretched past what is right. And yes, the president’s executive order raising the exemption threshold last week was a long-overdue, much-needed change for the better. 
I can tell endless stories about immigrant workers. A young man from Bangladesh working as a dining room attendant in my cafeteria fell in love with a young Mexican girl and got married. Before a year had passed, they had bought a small lunch business selling wings and hamburgers which she was running while he continued a year or two more earning tips in my dining room which were invested in their new enterprise. An older man who was like a "Daddy" to my dishroom staff from time to time returned to Mexico to check on things. He was practically illiterate and had to use a translator to communicate with me, but in his home town he was a landlord of two or three business properties sending rent to his family there.
My neighborhood includes a Mexican family that was here before we arrived fourteen years ago. They have a lovely, well-kept house and have always paid dues to the Homeowners Association. With a house full of kids and two or three cars, they are supported by an auto repair business operated by the father and his oldest son.
Among my staff before I retired were employees from Haiti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Pakistan. I have watched wave after wave of immigrants coming into the country for my whole working life. The food business is very labor-intensive and it is no accident that when all else fails, someone from another country can always fall back on opening a restaurant selling whatever cuisine they know. Even if they know nothing else, they can always cook the food they grew up eating. (Which is partly why the food business is so competitive.)
I could fill pages with stories like these. But the point is that Americans disregard immigrants (or worse, malign them) at their peril.

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