Writer Megy Karydes says people are surprised when she tells them she was a refugee. “I look American,” she says. “It’s not as if we wear a T-shirt announcing it.”
Although Karydes was born in the United States, her parents, who were Greek citizens, had returned to their home in northern Cyprus when she was a baby. That summer, however, in 1974, a Turkish military invasion forced one third of the island’s Greek residents from their homes. Among the more than 140,000 new refugees were Karydes and her parents, who together found safety, and a new home, back in the United States.
Karydes has since built a successful life in Chicago, both as a contributor to publications like the Chicago Tribune, Travel + Leisure and Forbes, and as an independent marketing consultant. As a small-business owner with immigrant ties, she’s hardly alone; there are nearly 7,500 immigrant entrepreneurs in Illinois’ Fifth Congressional district, a district that includes parts of the Chicago area and where immigrants are 67 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than are U.S.-born citizens. Across the country, refugees, who generated $4.6 billion in business income in 2015, are 44 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than are the U.S. born.
Americans somehow have amnesia about their own families who were immigrants.
When Karydes went looking for other people in her area with roots in Cyprus, she stumbled upon a larger refugee community, of people from around the globe. “It’s amazing to me how many people have lost their homes and become refugees,” says Karydes, who is now working on a book about her family’s experience. “My story might be unique to me, but this story of never feeling like you’re home is one that I think resonates with so many people.”
Karydes would like to see U.S. political leaders create an efficient immigration process, one that allows more refugees to enter the country. If politicians fail to do so, she says, “they’re hurting their own economy in the end.” The data backs up her thinking. A recent analysis of some 2.3 million refugees in America found that refugees generated $77.2 billion in household income in 2015. Of that, $20.9 billion was used to pay taxes, leaving $56.3 billion in disposable income to spend on housing, food, and other goods at American businesses. In addition, the study found that an estimated 77.1 percent of refugees are working age, or between the ages of 25 and 64, compared with just 49.7 percent of the U.S.-born, making them critical contributors to U.S. entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which will undergo increasing strain as the U.S. population ages.
Karydes thinks a lot of Americans mistakenly believe that all refugees come from Syria, “or whatever country is having a crisis at the moment,” she says. When her friends learn that her family members were refugees, they are surprised but empathetic. “They always say, ‘I had no idea. I wonder who else in my circle of friends might be a refugee, or whose families were refugees.’ ”
In the end, Karydes wishes that Americans could see refugees for the economic and other benefits they bring to the country, instead of as a threat. “Sure, we need to be cognizant of potentially dangerous people coming here, but there are things in place to protect us,” she says. “I don’t know why, but Americans somehow have amnesia about their own families who were immigrants.”