When Naftaly Stramer became a U.S. citizen in 2001, the judge presiding over the ceremony had inspiring words for the diverse group of new Americans: “You are becoming American citizens and you are pledging allegiance to the United States, but don’t forget the heritage that you came from. You are bringing a lot of value to the United States, a lot of culture.”
Today, years later, the Israeli native says: “That stuck with me.”
As the co-owner of Oasis Falafel in Iowa City, Iowa, which boasts annual revenues of $2.5 million and employs 45 people, Stramer has stayed true to those words. In 2003, he and a fellow Israeli immigrant, Ofer Sivan, realized that Iowa City didn’t have a single Israeli restaurant. At the time, Stramer was an engineer there and vice president of a tech startup, but he was ready for a new challenge. Bringing falafels and hummus to his adopted city seemed like the perfect venture, so in 2004 the duo ran pop-ups at two popular summer festivals. “We put up a booth to see if people liked it, and they liked it,” he says.
They opened Oasis the Falafel later that year. “Iowa City has people from all over the world, so that was very helpful to our business in the beginning. It took a while to persuade the Americans to come in and try the food,” he says.
This whole idea about keeping the people out, I think it’s a big mistake. There are a lot of people who came to the United States and opened a business and employ people.
Once word got out, however, business soared. In 2006, the partners added a wholesale division, selling hummus to local supermarkets and grab-a-go packets to university cafes. Their staff grew to 28 full-time and 17 part-time workers, most of whom were born in the United States. And in 2017, Oasis Falafel received the statewide Outstanding Immigrant Award at the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit, an honor that recognizes both profitability and philanthropic contributions. The Oasis owners frequently donate food and gift cards to charitable events benefiting the Iowa City Public School District, the University of Iowa, and various community nonprofits. One dance marathon fueled by their donated food, for example, raised money for a children’s cancer organization.
Stramer is one of 2.9 million immigrant entrepreneurs in America who generate a combined $65.5 billion in annual business income, money that gets redistributed throughout the U.S. economy. Foreign-born residents frequently punch above their weight when it comes to starting new businesses: In 2014, immigrants made up 20.6 percent of all entrepreneurs in the country despite representing just 13.2 percent of the U.S. population. In Iowa’s Second Congressional District, Stramer is one of 1,060 immigrant entrepreneurs creating jobs for his neighbors. He is also an engaged member of the Iowa City business community, serving as president of the Iowa City Downtown District and on the board of the Iowa City/Coralville Visitor’s Bureau.
Stramer says his own immigration process went smoothly. A software engineer, he came to the United States in 1989 on an H1-B visa for high-skill workers, while his wife studied statistics at Colorado State University on a student visa. It’s unfortunate, he says, that today talented professionals from around the world have so much trouble immigrating. “This whole idea about keeping the people out, I think it’s a big mistake,” he says. “There are a lot of people who came to the United States and opened a business and employ people.”
While Stramer does not believe the United States should have an open border, he would like to see an immigration system that enables people to bring their skills and hard work to this country. “I think of southern California. Without the immigrants who are working in the fields, I would probably pay double the price for produce in the restaurant,” he says. “Because who wants to do it? Give people a chance. You have to vet them, fine. Have a system, but make the system work.”