Supporting Immigrant and Refugee-Owned Businesses
Offerings to Erie economy as diverse as the people themselves
In 2019, Erie-Times News reporter Jennie Geisler wrote about a walking tour where they visited numerous international markets and grocery stores owned by refugees and immigrants around the city of Erie. It turned out to be both a rewarding and enlightening experience. She was introduced to new types of peppers, nuts, lentils, and halal meats, as well as shawarma, which in recent years has become a growing favorite found throughout the city.
"Let's call a spade a spade," she reflected afterwards about her hesitation to visit these stores on her own. "I was just afraid. … And [after the tour] I felt silly and not just a little ashamed about feeling that way in the first place."
Let's be real: sometimes it's simply easier to go to Wal-Mart or Wegmans than to go outside of our comfort zones — but outside of our comfort zones is often where one is enriched with new and rewarding experiences and interactions.
Kelly Armor as part of her residence with Erie Arts & Culture and with the assistance of USCRI International Institute of Erie recently compiled an updated and ever-growing list of refugee-owned businesses in the city. The pamphlet includes local businesses owned by entrepreneurs from Bhutan, Bosnia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Kosovo, Nepal, Palestine, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine.
Erie's refugee and immigrant population continues to grow. The refugee population surpassed 10,000 residents and the number of refugee students in city schools has doubled over the past decade. As a result, their contributions to the local economy and the availability of goods and services not previously offered in the area continue to expand as well.
These businesses include not only restaurants and markets, but also bakeries, clothing stores, boutiques, jewelers, tailors, barbershops, salons, auto shops, auto sales, accounting firms, notaries, home care providers, trucking companies, childcare, galleries, and graphic designers. There are also musicians, artists, dancers, and sculptors.
Want to check out a market with foods and products of which you may not be familiar? There are numerous Iraqi-owned markets on Parade Street. Almadina Supermarket, for example, offers Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese breads, fresh produce, as well as drinks, snacks, and candies you won't find in chain grocery stores. Swing over to the nearby Armenian owned Europa Delicatessen on Peach Street and you can find German chocolates, Bosnian dumplings, Hungarian smoked meats, Ukrainian candies, European soft drinks, and countless other Eastern European treats. Spread throughout the city are also nearly a dozen Bhutanese and Nepalese owned grocers including All in One Market on Pine Avenue and Himalayan Groceries on East 21st Street.
If you prefer your food already prepared, there are numerous refugee-owned restaurants throughout Erie such as Shawarma King, Tandoori Hut, Shish Kabob Restaurant, Erie Curry House, and Fine Restaurant & Bar.
It's not all merely food being offered either. Need a haircut? Give Culture Cut Barbershop & Salon on West 26th Street a try. It's owned by Yousseff Almaraey who came to Erie from Syria in 2016. Have an oil change on the horizon? Check out Al Bidhawi Auto Services on Parade Street or Ed's Transmission on East 26th Street. Need that title transferred? Z's Notary on Pine Avenue has you covered.
Need some local talent to add some music for your event? Erie's refugee community has enriched Erie's cultural scene also. Musicians such as Gyan Ghising (who also owns My Way Bar and Grill), Nibal Abd El Karim (who also owns Sham Market with her husband), and Mustafa Albalkhi are just a few who are a simple phone call booking away.
Albalkhi, a refugee of the ongoing Syrian civil war, plays the oud, a fretless stringed instrument similar to a lute popular in the Middle East. Before the war, he used to compose songs for weddings and his wife. While in the refugee camp in Jordan, he began writing songs about the war as a way to express the grief and traumas experienced by him and so many others who fled the death and destruction. In Erie, he's played at numerous local events as well as for programs designed for preschools and elementary-aged students.
"My music is important to other Arabic speaking people in Erie because most of us have a lot of grief. Most of us came as refugees and lost our homes, our jobs, and our family to war," he told Erie Arts & Culture. He believes that through music we can achieve peace and understanding between people and cultures. "I believe my music is also important to people who do not speak Arabic. They will not understand the words but my music can touch them. My oud can speak and everyone will listen. They can feel my culture, my pain, my history."
A June 2021 report by the New American Economy, the City of Erie, and Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership noted that these New Americans, which recently have also included hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and Guatemala, "punch above their weight when it comes to their power as consumers" too, adding $192.3 million in disposable income that is spent in our local economy. The way in which they enrich our communities cannot be overstated.
"Thanks to their diverse perspectives and experiences, refugees and their children can help spark new ideas and technologies," penned Philippe Legrain in 2016. "People who have been uprooted from one culture and exposed to another tend to be more creative, while studies show that diverse groups outperform like-minded experts at problem solving."
Jonathan Burdick runs the public history project Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org