- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

BURLINGTON, Vt. — JackieAbeneto knew no English and had been separated from her eldest son when she and three of her children arrived in Vermont as refugees from thewar-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2000.

In the past six years, she learned the language, became a licensed nursing assistant and reunited with her son.

Better still, Miss Abeneto, 47, and her son last year opened their own African shop in a working-class section of Burlington, where they sell plantain flour, mango nectar, dried fish, videotapes of movies from Africa and vibrantly colored African dresses. Karibu Market reminds them of the home they left so abruptly.

The Vermont Micro Business Development Program was one of nine organizations across the country in 2002 to receive a federal grant to help people fleeing war and strife in their homelands start businesses in their new homes. Twenty-six agencies from Maine to California operate similar programs on $100,000 to $200,000 multiyear grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

In Wisconsin, Josh Vue was able to start his own machine shop. At 16, he had escaped the war in Laos in the 1970s with his uncle and grandmother. He attended trade school in Boulder, Colo., studied machinery and went to work for a machine parts manufacturer.

With help from ADVOCAP Inc., a community action agency serving low-income people in east-central Wisconsin, he opened a shop in Neenah in 1999 in a space provided by the agency.

“I set up my business right inside their building for nine months,” Mr. Vue said. Rent was low, and eventually he was able to buy his own place.

Other members of the Hmong ethnic minority group from Southeast Asia have set up Asian grocery stores and beauty salons, and they grow and sell vegetables at farmers markets. The business enterprise program “has enabled them to do something that they would otherwise not be able to do, which is to become self-sufficient,” said Robert Jump, business development specialist for ADVOCAP.

Predag Kovacevic, of Bosnia-Herzegovina, started a sign-making business in San Diego after getting help to write a business plan, file taxes and apply for credit.

“That business plan was the biggest thing to worry about because without the business plan you can’t get any loans,” he said.

In another part of San Diego, Lia Woldu, of Ethiopia, is expanding her child care business. She’s getting help to apply for loans to upgrade her toys and teaching materials and for a license to care for more than eight children, said Ralph Achenbach of the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

The nonprofit organization has helped to start 85 refugee businesses and assisted in 60 business expansions in the past six years, Mr. Achenbach said.

“Right now we’re working with a Persian caterer, a Colombian handicrafts business, piano teachers, handymen, small construction businesses and cleaners,” he said.

Refugees overcome tremendous challenges to get a business started in this country. The training programs help them hone their ideas.

“Some of the refugees come in and think they can start a business like the one they had in their country, but they don’t realize what a small population we have here,” said Anne Peter of the Micro Business Development Program in Burlington. “I don’t know how many clients wanted to start a restaurant in Burlington. Other barriers are English and a knowledge of American business practices. And the other barrier is financing.”

The Vermont Refugee Micro Enterprise program, which was funded with a three-year federal grant, assisted nearly 40 people who fled Africa, Vietnam and Bosnia in starting up businesses before the grant money ran out in December. The program provided one-on-one training and technical assistance with help from bilingual counselors, many of whom are refugees themselves.

When ethnic war broke out in the vast central African nation of Congo more than a decade ago, Miss Abeneto was perceived to be of Tutsi ethnicity, rounded up with others and jailed. The conflict has killed an estimated 3.8 million people since 1998.

The International Red Cross intervened, and Miss Abeneto and three of her children were placed in a refugee camp in Cameroon. But she had lost track of Eddi, at 29 her oldest, who had been studying in eastern Congo. After seven months, Miss Abeneto and the three children were placed in Vermont, where they lived in an apartment in Barre.

First, Miss Abeneto learned the language of her adopted country. She took classes to become a licensed nursing assistant, worked at a nursing home and took part in a savings program through the micro enterprise program, which provided matching funds. After two years, she had enough money to get Karibu Market started.

The Red Cross helped to find Eddi in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He arrived in Vermont two years ago, and in that time he has picked up English, found a full-time job in housekeeping at a hospital in Burlington and attends Champlain College part time. He learned accounting in business classes offered by the micro enterprise program, and he does bookkeeping for Karibu Market.

The program “has helped us [understand] how to open it, how to do everything, find the space,” Miss Abeneto said.

“Find the loan,” her son added.

After a year in business, Karibu (which means “welcome” in Swahili) is making a modest profit.

“Right from the beginning, Jackie worked really hard … because she had been a very qualified, very successful businesswoman in the Congo,” her son said. “She really persevered.”

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