Recession hits immigrants’ businesses especially hard

Kansas City StarDecember 15, 2008 

On a Thursday evening, Cabdul Barrow sits in the dimly lit Somali restaurant and waits for customers.

Usually at this hour at Towfiq Restaurant in Kansas City’s Northeast area, African immigrants who work late shifts come in for a meal of goat meat and rice or just a cup of green tea.

These days, the restaurant is quiet.

“Kenyans, Sudanese, Ugandans, they all come here,” said Barrow, 42. “But there have been a lot of layoffs, and that’s why business is slow.”

In this recession, immigrant business owners and operators such as Barrow, a native of Somalia, face the challenge of expanding their customer bases beyond their communities to stay afloat.

The Northeast area — bounded by the Paseo and Interstate 435, and Gladstone Boulevard and Truman Road — has seen the bulk of the Kansas City area’s new immigrants and refugees, including families from Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The city’s 5,000 or so Somalis make up one of the metropolitan area’s largest refugee populations. Businesses such as Towfiq, near the corner of Brooklyn and Lexington avenues, are the heart of the Somali community.

“When they open their own business, most of their products are geared toward their community,” said Martin Okpareke, a refugee employment training manager at Jewish Vocational Services, which has resettled 650 refugees in the last three years, including 487 in the Northeast area.

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