This story is part of a series on Michigan’s migrant labor force powering the hospitality, agriculture and manufacturing industries.
From tulips and furniture to automobiles and paczki, generations of immigrants have left their mark on Michigan’s economy in countless ways, and foreign-born business owners are a key part of the state’s recovery as it claws it’s way out of a pandemic.
The state is home to 36,056 immigrant entrepreneurs who brought in $1.2 billion in 2019, according to research and advocacy firm New American Economy.
Related: Michigan’s high-tech industries need foreign workers to drive future growth
But just like so many other business owners along Michigan’s Main Streets, immigrant businesses saw huge losses during the early months of the pandemic.
Nationwide, it’s estimated immigrant business owners saw a 36% drop in business activity in the first three months of the pandemic, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
But immigrant business owners have showed perseverance built out of generational struggle and a lifetime of adapting to new circumstances.
Immigrants are more likely to become business owners than their U.S.-born counterparts. They made up 21.7% of all business owners in the U.S. in 2019, despite making up 13.6% of the population and 17.1% of the U.S. labor force, according to New American Economy.
“We have lots of individuals that don’t have anything to lose and a lot to win,” said Guillermo Cisneros, president of West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “They are new immigrants, so they rather take a risk than stay where they are at.”
The pandemic ‘clipped the wings’ of immigrant business owners
For 16 years, Dina Suarez was flourishing as a business owner, but she says the pandemic ‘clipped her wings.’
She moved from California to Michigan in 1997 and saw there was a void she could fill.
“When I got here, I realized that there was no business selling the food that I love, which was Salvadorian food,” she said. “I saw an opportunity and I really wanted to take advantage of that opportunity and share my culinary love for food with the community.”
Related: Michigan leans on migrant workers amid labor shortage
In 2005, Suarez opened Pupuseria El Salvador in Wyoming, just outside of downtown Grand Rapids. The signature meal is the national dish of El Salvador, pupusas, thick griddle cakes filled with fish, chicken or stewed beef and served with salsa and cabbage relish.
When the pandemic hit, Suarez said she felt forgotten by her local and state government.
“A lot of Latino business in our community have been left behind, because they’re not being taken into account,” she said. “No one really reached out to them.”
Ana Jose, program manager for Transformando West Michigan within the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spent months trying to assist business owners like Suarez.
Navigating federal aid highlighted the fact that many immigrant business owners were learning as they went, and did not have a formal business background, Jose said. Some were missing payroll records and the documentation needed for loans.
An additional obstacle was legal status. Jose estimates about 45% of the businesses she assisted were run by undocumented immigrants.
“You know there’s a 99.9% chance that this person is not going to get one penny from the government,” she said. “And the only thing you could actually say to them is ‘Let’s stay hopeful.’”
Still, Jose said she saw a hunger in these business owners to survive.
The aid program is run by Jose and one other employee. Jose recalls lying in bed with her mind “going 100 miles per hour” every night trying to find solutions.
“If we didn’t do it, we didn’t have anybody else doing it,” Jose said.
The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s corporate partners reallocated nearly $1 million in CARES Act money to Hispanic-owned businesses.
Suarez was the recipient of some of the grants coordinated by the chamber. She was able to keep her doors open throughout the pandemic and worked 18-hour days with half of her normal staff.
“As Latinos, we’re here to work and to move forward and to do the best we can within this community,” she said. “We’re not here to take advantage of the system. We are here to work and do the best we can.”
Generational success inspired by Meijer family
The coronavirus pandemic presented both challenges and opportunities for immigrant-owned businesses. The Hasan family solidified relationships with their customers and community through hard times in the last year.
Ahmad Hasan is one of four brothers and two sisters who manage Nice Price, a thriving chain of retail businesses in Southeast Michigan. Nice Price fared well during the pandemic, seeing high demand for products curated to suit the multicultural tastes of immigrant communities in southwest Detroit and Hamtramck. Hasan makes around half the clothing items sold at the stores himself; he started a manufacturing shop to create modest items designed by his sister.
The retail chain hasn’t been without its struggles, however. Hasan said it’s been tough to secure enough inventory to keep up with demand, especially for goods imported from overseas. Shipping costs skyrocketed after the pandemic began, in part due to a shortage of containers driving competition for goods with big box retailers.
The family is meticulous about what goes on its shelves, frequently changing out items based on consumer feedback. The result is a diverse range of goods catering to Hispanic, Middle Eastern and African American communities. Hasan said he tries to offer as many American-made products as possible.
“Anytime I can put a flag on a product that says ‘Made in America,’ it’s a blessing for me,” he said.
The business was also the victim of unfortunate timing. A significant portion of the original Nice Price location, which opened in 1998, burned down in 2019. Hasan said plans were in motion to build a second location just before the pandemic hit and construction costs soared. They quickly pivoted to finding a new building to store inventory while the other projects stalled.
Hasan said sales have been strong at a new store in Dearborn.
“We put our heart into it, so this is what you get as a result of a lot of frustration,” Hasan said, laughing.
Hasan’s father Khalid built a reputation in international imports while raising his kids in Jordan. The family spent vacations in Michigan visiting their mother’s side of the family, who left Jordan in the 1970s to work for Ford. One by one, Hasan’s siblings started going to college in the United States, so the entire family moved to America.
Khalid wasn’t sure if his business experience would translate in the U.S., so he sent the kids out to learn from the best. Hasan and his brothers worked at Meijer, Dollar Tree and other retailers, then became flea market vendors before opening the first Nice Price location.
Hasan said he related to the story of the Meijer family – a grandfather immigrated to Michigan to start a business, passed it on to a son who pushed it to the next level and then handed it to his children. Hasan said his own family was seeking generational success too.
Hasan became an accountant, then returned to help take over the family business when his father was ready to retire. Now the retail chain is run by the four brothers. Someday, they may pass it on to their children.
“We’ll have same standards as my dad, get a college degree, work somewhere, get a taste of life, and then see what you want to do,” Hasan said. “But they’ll always have retail in their heart, like us.”
The Hasan family’s aspirations don’t just lie in business success. They also strive to be an anchor for their community. Hasan serves on the board of the West Vernor and Springwells Business Improvement District. The family has been active in helping clean up blight and advocating for improved city services.
Nice Price partners with refugee resettlement organizations to create starter packages for new immigrants. Khalid sponsors 1,400 families in Jordan.
“There’s more joy in giving than taking,” Hasan said. “That’s the model we live by, and that’s what I truly believe in.”
‘Every job is an honest job’
Jumana Judeh isn’t afraid of a hard day’s work.
The economic challenges of the pandemic were no match for the resilience she’s developed since moving to the U.S. 50 years ago.
Judeh grew up in Ramallah, a small but culturally significant Palestinian city in the West Bank. She immigrated to Chicago in 1970 at 11 years old. Her father and two brothers left a few years earlier to avoid being drafted into conflicts between Israel and surrounding Arab nations.
“We were the typical — had nothing but the shirt on our back immigrants coming to this country for safer grounds because my dad was worried for his kids,” said Judeh, of Livonia. “Whatever money we had, he spent on airline tickets and we came to this country.”
Once reunited in the U.S., the family moved to the Detroit area seeking more affordable housing. They settled down in Westland. Southeast Michigan became a popular destination for immigrants and refugees and from Middle Eastern countries, but Judeh said there wasn’t much of an Arab community at the time.
Judeh remembers her mother toiling in the kitchen while her father was busy at work. Judeh’s father was a tailor who prided himself on once making a suit for the King of Jordan. He put his skills to use altering clothes at Crowley’s, one of Detroit’s largest retailers at the time.
While the move to Michigan brought Judeh’s family relative safety and economic opportunity, it also gave Judeh her first experiences with discrimination.
Judeh would often get into fights at school with bullies who singled her out. Neighbors tried to coerce the family to move out. Teachers assumed she couldn’t understand English despite Judeh actually being trilingual. (She learned English, French and Arabic before moving to America.)
“I was called ‘camel jockey’ and people would ask ‘Did you grow up in a tent?’ You know, silly questions,” Judeh said. “Why is it so bad with being Arab? That whole concept was just very different because I came from a city where Muslims and Jews and Christians, we all lived together we celebrated everybody’s holidays together. You know, I had never experienced the concept of stereotyping and discrimination until I came to this country.”
Judeh is proud to be an American. She remembers getting dressed up in her Sunday best and driving down to the immigration office in Detroit to be sworn in as a citizen.
It wasn’t long before Judeh and her siblings were put to work themselves. Judeh’s first job was cleaning toilets at a hotel.
“In the Arab world, there’s a proverb that says no work is shameful,” Judeh said. “Every job is an honest job.”
She bought her first car with money earned from cleaning toilets.
Judeh started her own business in 1994. She was single mother at the time and was attracted by the idea of setting her own hours by becoming a commercial real estate appraiser. Judeh went back to school, trained under a mentor for two years and fulfilled her goal by launching her businesses from her family room.
“My whole goal in life was to just get out of debt,” Judeh said. “That’s all I did was raise the kids and work for a long time just so I can get back on my feet. Thank God, 27 years later, I built the house where I raised my kids and did very well for myself.”
Her father raised funds to build roads and bring electricity to the village where he grew up. Judeh has tried to carry on his legacy of civic engagement.
Judeh was serving as vice chair of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce when she realized there were few women in leadership roles around her. In search of a solution, she was a founding member of the Arab American Women’s Business Council, a nonprofit professional development organization.
She said the organization has been a driving force in diminishing stereotypes Arab women face in the workplace. Judeh regularly works with corporations to develop cultural sensitivity training and make their businesses more welcoming.
“We believe that the key to a woman’s dependency is economic choices,” Judeh said.
Judeh was a city councilwoman in Dearborn Heights and has served on a number of other local boards and organizations. She was appointed to the Council for Labor and Economic Growth by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Judeh said first-generation immigrant families often work behind counters and in backrooms, but instill in their children values of hard work and a solid education. She said the next generation often trains for high-paying and high-skilled technical jobs or finding success in the corporate world.
“I am an American, and this country made me what I am today, it afforded me the opportunities as a woman,” Judeh said. “What the United States does is crack the door open for you. It’s up to you to build yourself and get the strength to walk through that door and take advantage of these opportunities.”
More on MLive:
‘The broken family we became:’ Michigan siblings cope with deportation of both parents
Immigration is saving Michigan from population loss, but state falls far behind national averages
Michigan needs more workers from abroad, but migrant worker authorization rare, costly