When my family came to Utica as Jewish refugees from Ukraine, I never dreamed I’d become an entrepreneur. Back then, in 1997, I was a 12-year-old kid who assumed I’d become an engineer like my father and my grandfather.
But after we arrived, I became inspired by the American culture of innovation, and my experience as a refugee made me appreciate it even more. After all, I had left everything I knew—language, culture, friends, relatives. As a result, I developed a problem-solving mindset and became very comfortable taking risks. Plus, after growing up in a place where there was very little opportunity to become an entrepreneur, I was blown away by how open and straightforward the business culture is here.
So after graduating from business school in Boston, I returned to Utica and in 2013 founded Green Ignite, an LED-lighting company that distributes energy-efficient lighting systems to clients throughout the world. I came back to Utica to be close to my family and to give back to the community that welcomed us so many years ago. Now my company employs seven people and generates $2 million a year in sales.
As Uticans prepare for World Refugee Day festivities in Hanna Park on June 22, I’m excited to celebrate the ways Uticans – immigrants and U.S.-born alike – are working together to make this city great.
In Utica, we are well aware that the city’s more than 15,000 refugees have played a significant role in replenishing the local population, which dropped from 100,000 in 1960 to just over 60,000 now. We see refugee-owned businesses bringing lots of economic activity and exciting new choices to the city: Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, Bosnian and Russian markets and many other shops and eateries from around the world. We know refugees are filling production lines at Chobani Yogurt and the Keymark Corporation as well as the pews at many local churches. So it’s no surprise that 69 percent of Uticans say that immigration is beneficial to the area, according to Zogby Analytics.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of confusion on this issue in Washington. The Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of refugees permitted to enter the United States—the current cap of 30,000 is the lowest number since Ronald Reagan signed the Refugee Act in 1980. By keeping refugees out of the country, the administration is going against its own research: A 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that the fiscal net impact of refugees over a ten-year period was positive—to the tune of $63 billion. (The report was obtained by the media after the Trump administration refused to release it.) The report’s authors explain that although refugees initially use government services like Medicaid and housing assistance when they first arrive, they quickly become active members of the workforce, and the tax revenue refugees contribute exceeds the cost of the services they utilize.
One major reason why refugees have such a positive influence: We start a lot of businesses. According to New American Economy, 13 percent of U.S. refugees are entrepreneurs, compared with 11.5 percent of non-refugee immigrants and 9 percent of the U.S.-born population. Refugee-owned businesses generate about $4.6 billion each year.
And in cities like Utica, we are quite literally helping to keep the lights on. For example, I recently purchased a building downtown from a retiring construction store owner. It was a win-win: The U.S.-born baby boomer got a large payment to help him enjoy his golden years, and I got a space large enough to accommodate Green Ignite’s growing inventory.
I’m still amazed that someone like me—with no connections and limited resources—could create a company from scratch at age 28. This could only happen in the United States, which has always combined American optimism and ingenuity with the immigrant drive for a better life. It also helps that Americans are so practical. When you do business in the United States, the insignificant differences between people disappear. Everyone understands that what matters is the result.
Here in Utica, the positive results of refugee resettlement are clear. I hope the Trump administration will take a closer look at cities like ours and create a refugee policy that every American can celebrate.
Viktor Klyachko is the president and founder of Green Ignite, Inc., in Utica.