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One Refugee Couple, Dozens of Entrepreneurial Stories

Nadia Kasvin came to the United States under the terms of the Lautenberg Amendment, a 1989 policy that allowed Jews and other religious minorities facing persecution in the former Soviet Union to seek asylum in America. Three years after applying, and after numerous background checks and interviews, Kasvin and her husband, who had family in the United States, were granted entry in 1993.

Kasvin’s husband, trained as a mechanical engineer in Ukraine, began working in information technology, a field in which there’s a growing need for skilled workers in the United States, and eventually he launched his own company. DotX Technologies, which provides IT support to businesses and organizations in Columbus, Ohio, now has a dozen employees and annual revenue of $1.5 million. It is one of nearly 1,800 businesses in the metropolitan area — and one of 2.9 million in the nation — that is owned by a foreign-born entrepreneur, part of a large network of critical job creators in recent years. From 1996 to 2011, the rate at which immigrants founded new businesses grew by 50 percent, while the rate at which U.S.-born entrepreneurs did so actually declined, by 10 percent. By 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, businesses owned by immigrants or refugees employed more than 5.9 million American workers.

Were it only for Kasvin’s husband’s work, the couple might be considered somewhat typical immigrant business owners. But Kasvin has taken their desire to succeed a step further: She now helps other refugees who are new to the United States assimilate so they can quickly become self-sufficient and productive. Although trained as a teacher in her homeland, Kasvin in 2003 founded US Together, a statewide not-for-profit mutual assistance agency that helps refugees learn job skills, financial literacy, English, and more. With three offices across Ohio, US Together now has more than 30 employees.

Those employees, in turn, help newcomers to best contribute to the U.S. economy. For example, studies show that a lack of English skills is the largest contributor to underemployment and a major contributor to unemployment in the immigrant population. Combined, these factors rob the U.S. economy of tens of billions of dollars in spending power and deprive federal and state governments of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue. One study found that an estimated 1.9 million high-skilled immigrants are underemployed, leading to an annual loss of $39.4 billion in earnings and $10.2 billion in tax payments.

Once our stories are known and our desire for independence is understood, barriers disappear and our similarities trump any differences.

For her work, Kasvin was honored by the White House in 2015 as a Champion of Change for World Refugees. “I have dedicated my life in this new country to helping refugees and immigrants be successful,” she writes in an event page. “Yet sometimes my greatest hurdle is changing local attitudes toward the people I serve.  Many have never met someone born in another country. They may not know our plight, our hard work ethic, our family story or our struggle to succeed in our new country. But once our stories are known and our desire for independence is understood, barriers disappear and our similarities trump any differences.”

She goes on to relay the stories of refugees from around the globe who have come through her organization and gone on to start their own small businesses. “Not many people fully appreciate the economic impact of new Americans,” continues Kasvin, whose organization found that 13.6 percent of employed refugees in the greater Columbus area are business owners, a rate that’s more than twice that of the population as a whole. “I have heard enough stories to know the numbers [of successful refugees] would impress.”

Kasvin appreciates that immigration policy is complicated, and that newcomers must be carefully screened, but she says the process could be streamlined. Currently all refugee processing takes place overseas, in the very countries where people face constant danger. “Fewer than 1 percent of those who are eligible for refugee status are granted it,” Kasvin says. “But when the process can take up to three years, every day counts. We must find a way to speed this up.”

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