January 21, 2020
Chicago’s high overall score of 4.38 stems from its excellent performance in all Policy categories. The city could improve its score even further with more focus on Civic Participation.
Sam Toia, a third-generation Italian-American, whose grandfather emigrated from Sicily in the 1920’s, is deeply embedded in Chicago’s culinary world. As President & CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA), he advocates on behalf of the industry and its workers. In the state of Illinois alone, there are more than 27,000 restaurants, with total sales of $25.2 billion and more than 577,000 employees — nearly half of whom are immigrants.
“Immigrants are the backbone of the hospitality industry,” Toia says. “And it’s been that way for the last 100 years.” This is especially true in Chicago, where the food scene is booming and everyone from government officials to local citizens go out of their way to support immigrants who set up new restaurants.
Immigrants are the backbone of the hospitality industry, and it’s been that way for the last 100 years.”
In fact, Chicago is eighth in New American Economy’s newly released Cities Index, which rates the most welcoming American cities for immigrants. In particular, Chicago’s government goes out of its way to help immigrant entrepreneurs thrive. (They ranked especially high in the report’s Government Leadership and Equitable Access metric.)
“The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is always trying to help immigrants opening businesses,” says Toia, who works closely with numerous city government offices. “Thirty seven percent of small restaurant owners are immigrants. If you’re an immigrant who wants to open a restaurant, an office with bilingual staff will walk you through the steps. Immigrant restaurant owners I know say the process is seamless. The city is there to help you.”
Chicago’s general population is also welcoming to immigrants, who make up 17.5 percent of the total population, according to New American Economy. “Chicago has become even more welcoming, especially with what’s going on at the border now,” says Toia. “People walk around with buttons expressing their support.”
To Toia, protecting Chicago’s immigrant workforce is key to the survival of the city’s restaurant industry. Without that population, the industry would suffer tremendously. That’s why he says so many Chicago government officials have developed programs to support this economically-vital community.
“Immigrants helped build the Chicago restaurant industry,” Toia says. “Anyone in city government knows that they play a key role in our growth and our diversity, which is why we want the immigrant community in Chicago to know: We’ve got your back.”
The first time the military picked up Nasir Zakaria he was walking to the bazaar to get food for his father. Aged 14, he was one of two dozen Rohingya boys plucked for a day of slave labor in another routine act of persecution in Myanmar against the ethnic minority.
The third time Zakaria was taken, he was forced at gunpoint to carry military supplies into the jungle. This time, the soldiers gave him water. “It basically gets to a point where you are hoping so much that you can get away,” he says, “even if you get away and you die at their hands.”
I’m so happy the people of Chicago come to me, knock on the door, say ‘How can we help you?’
Zakaria escaped soon after. Unable to return home, for fear of capture, he fled alone to Bangladesh, then to Malaysia, where he worked construction, but as an “illegal” still had to hide. For five years, until he received his refugee card, he slept under a plastic sheet in the jungle.
“Refugee life is like a soccer ball,” he says. “Always moving.” Twenty-three years after leaving his family, at age 38, Zakaria was admitted to the United States with his wife, daughter, and grandfather.
“I’m so happy,” he says. “After one month I work but I didn’t get chance to learn English, get education.”
In Myanmar, the Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship and denied access to school, travel, certain jobs, or court. About 1,400 Rohingya refugees have resettled in Chicago since 2012, and Zakaria wants to ensure they have the opportunity to learn.
So in 2016, while washing dishes on the graveyard shift at an Illinois casino, a 2-hour commute each way, Zakaria secured space and funding from the Zakat Foundation to open the Rohingya Cultural Center, on Chicago’s north side. Volunteers help provide English classes, job training, children’s tutoring, and more. For many in this particularly vulnerable population, it marks their first such opportunity.
“I’m so happy the people of Chicago come to me, knock on the door, say ‘How can we help you?’ ” Zakaria says. “I tell our people: This is so important to us. We are free. We are free in the United States.”
The idea Arnav Dalmia and two friends came up with at the University of Chicago didn’t work out exactly as they had expected.
The three foreign-born undergraduates — two studying economics, one biology — designed an elliptical exercise machine small enough to fit under a desk. The goal was to give office workers an easy-to-use, yet effectual means for “active sitting.”
The company, called Cubii, certainly did tap into the U.S. market. Just four years after launching, the startup has 100,000 active users and enough ongoing interest to support a staff of 10 at its Chicago headquarters. But in an unexpected twist, about half of Cubii’s sales go not to office workers, as intended, but to others who are confined to a chair — like those who for any multitude of health reasons are unable to get on a bicycle, move about a gym, or perhaps even walk around the block.
“We get calls from people saying Cubii has literally changed their lives,” Dalmia says. “That is the most heartwarming thing you can imagine.”
Dalmia moved to Chicago in 2009 from his home in India to attend college. There he met fellow students Shivani Jain, who is also from India, and Ryota Sekine, who is from Japan. They hold two patents on their work.
“Over time we realized that an increasing number of our users are going through some kind of medical condition, ranging from cancer rehab, physical therapy, arthritis, diabetes, or some kind of limited mobility,” says Dalmia.
It brings tears to our eyes.
The seven people he and his co-founders have hired were all born in the United States. Their median annual salary is about $80,000. Cubii’s retailers and contractors are all based stateside. Nonetheless, Dalmia sees his contribution to the U.S. in the calls and emails he receives from customers, particularly those without many options for exercise. “It brings tears to our eyes,” he says.
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New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…