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Rescue committee helps refugees make a living, be successful

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As business directories go, it's a modest affair, more Yellow Cover page than Yellow Pages.

But the dreams cradled between the covers of the San Diego International Rescue Committee's new directory for refugee entrepreneurs - dreams of prospering in a new land with a business of one's own - are decidedly big.

For Osman Osman, a Sudanese refugee who fled to the United States in 2001 to escape civil war, life has been a patchwork of jobs to make ends meet, including his present full-time job as a security guard and a part-time position making deliveries.

But now Osman's fledgling ACE-American Cleaning Experts residential and commercial cleaning service, launched in 2005 with a $10,000 loan from the rescue committee, has the potential to provide a manageable living that might leave time for night school.

"The goal is to build up my business so I can quit working so many other jobs," said Osman, 34. "With my business I hope to be independent, to be my own boss."

The International Rescue Committee, which was founded in 1933, is a global emergency relief organization that provides refugee resettlement services and advocacy for people displaced or affected by war or oppression.

The nonprofit group has operated an office in San Diego since 1975, when it opened to help thousands of Vietnamese refugees who arrived at Camp Pendleton after the fall of Saigon.

Over the years, other refugee groups, including Hmongs, Ethiopians, Russians and Sudanese, have made their way to San Diego's rescue committee offices, seeking assistance with housing, medical care, job placement and immigration services.

In 2000, the San Diego rescue committee launched a "microenterprise" program to help refugees become self-sufficient by creating their own businesses. Since then, the program has helped start or assist more than 185 refugee-owned businesses by providing small loans and grants, business training and technical assistance.

Now the agency has created a business directory to help promote the efforts of its budding entrepreneurs. The directory lists about 60 refugee-owned and operated businesses, from restaurants to computer repair shops, and all have the proper permits and licenses to operate, according to the International Rescue Committee.

"This business directory is a testament to the hard work refugees invest in trying to rebuild their lives," said Kasra Movahedi, the rescue committee's business program manager. "We hope that the directory will serve as a resource for consumers who want to make a positive impact in their communities with their spending dollars."

Copies of the free, 33-page directory are available at

Ralph Achenbach, a specialist with the rescue committee's microenterprise program, said the agency currently has a portfolio of 103 active business loans, and an additional 65 have been repaid in full. The loans range from a few hundred dollars to $15,000.

Despite the fact that most of rescue committee's refugee entrepreneurs have few assets and no credit history, only 4 percent of the loans are delinquent or are in default. It is a success rate that a subprime mortgage lender might envy.

"We think it's a phenomenal record," Achenbach said. "No mainstream lender would consider giving a loan to refugees who, on paper, overwhelmingly look like credit risks. In fact, they aren't."

That may be because many of local refugee entrepreneurs were canny business people in their own countries, before civil war and political oppression forced them to flee.

In her native Kenya, Mary Wayuanzai Page, an educated, articulate woman who speaks nine languages, ran her own art gallery and participated in Kenya's vibrant cultural and art scene.

The art gallery was burned to the ground during the regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, and Page, who was beaten and jailed for her political opposition, fled to the United States in 1999.

Page made her way to San Diego in 2003, where she took various jobs as a caregiver to the elderly. She managed to make a few dollars on the side with her own small business, Tropical Heritage, which imports jewelry, art and decorative items from various self-help cooperatives in Africa.

"As a refugee, you have to take jobs to survive," said Page, 57. "Here, you have to forget what you are and do what you have to because you have to live. But it is rough."

A friend eventually steered Page to the International Rescue Committee, whose business experts and volunteers began in October to help her devise a business plan, create a Tropical Heritage Web site, and market her African art and crafts to various boutiques and art galleries.

Today, Page's head is full of ambitious plans for expanding her business and making it profitable, just as she did years ago as a gallery owner in Kenya.

"This makes me feel like me," Page said. "I like art; it is my line of business. I know I can do it."

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