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In America, Rwandan Refugee Gains a Voice and Creates Jobs

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Rubens Mukunzi runs a Buffalo-based newspaper, where he writes, edits, and meets with advertisers. After a one-hour break for dinner, the Rwandan refugee starts his shift at a cleaning company, where he works until midnight.

The hours are long, but Mukunzi doesn’t mind. He is happy for the opportunity to earn a living, to do work he loves, and to speak freely — things he did not always get to do in his homeland.

“Generally in my country there is not freedom of speech,” he says. “If you say something that the government doesn’t like, you can go to jail.”

Mukunzi was working as a journalist in Rwanda when government officials expressed their displeasure with his work and he was forced to flee. So, two years later, in 2015, he found it particularly gratifying to launch Karibu News, a newspaper geared to other new Americans in Buffalo, New York.

“I started Karibu News to help immigrants and refugees integrate,” he says. “Immigrants and refugees want to contribute to the future of this country.”

We don’t want to make mistakes. We need people to show us what to do and make us feel like we are neighbors. We need to be part of the community.

Karibu News, which has a circulation of about 10,000, is published twice a month in seven languages, including English. In 2016, its advertising yielded about $50,000 in sales, enough for Mukunzi to pay three full-time employees and 10 freelance contributors, as well to fund printers and other area vendors. The paper is fast being recognized. Last year, Karibu News won $10,000 in the 43North startup competition, a state-city partnership to promote entrepreneurship. Mukunzi now plans to incorporate video segments and expand to other cities in the state.

In Buffalo, new Americans like Mukunzi play a key role in stemming the population decline that has slowed the city’s economic growth for decades. Between 2000 and 2014, the foreign-born population grew by a robust 32.3 percent, a growth that was able to reduce the city’s overall population decline.

Like Mukunzi, many of these newcomers are creating their own jobs. In 2014, 9.1 percent of the foreign-born in Buffalo were self-employed, compared with 6.5 percent of U.S.-born residents. It’s a dynamism that helps all residents. Self-employed immigrants generated $121 million in business income and helped create or preserve 3,116 local manufacturing jobs.

When Mukunzi realized that for his safety he had to leave Rwanda, he came to the United States on a travel visa for a young-entrepreneurs assembly and applied for asylum. “I saw my life was in danger in my country,” he says. It took a year for immigration officials to process Mukunzi’s paperwork, and during that time he wasn’t allowed to work.

“I went to social services in Buffalo to seek help, and they did nothing because I didn’t have a Social Security number,” he says. “The only thing I could do was learn English at ESL classes.” One year later, he received his work permit, and three years after that he was granted asylum.

Mukunzi would like to see immigration reform that enables newcomers to provide for themselves and begin contributing to their new communities immediately, instead languishing as he did. He says immigrants want to do the right thing, but they need instruction. “We don’t want to make mistakes,” he says. “We need people to show us what to do and make us feel like we are neighbors.”

“Immigrants want to contribute,” he says, but these days many are afraid. “Here in Buffalo, we have people in the government who are supporting refugees. But in other cites, people are not feeling safe.”

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