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Micro Loans Help Immigrants Achieve American Dream


Many new immigrants and refugees in the United States find out that they have a hard time landing well-paying jobs. Even with business ambitions, they can face difficulties. VOA's June Soh looks at a non-profit organization that helps newcomers get started. Amy Katz narrates the story.

Zakaria Mancini is happy with where he is in his life. He came to the United States 20 years ago from Morocco pursuing a dream. "My life is beautiful and it is great. I have been always thinking about American dream. The American dream has come true in right time. I worked hard for it."

Mancini is a hair designer and an entrepreneur. He owns two hair salons called Mancini de Paris in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He says his salons generate more than a half million dollars in annual revenue.

The beauty industry was not what he had in mind, though, when he arrived in the U.S. But it did not take him long to realize that his bachelor's degree in electrical mechanics from Morocco would not help him get a job in America. "But I found another field that was going to make me successful and I just got into it. I put all my time into it. A lot of my family (members) were in the beauty industry and I just, like, switched into it."

But the path to success was not always smooth. Mancini says he encountered a stumbling block four years ago when he planned to expand his business. "It was the first experience building your dream salon from scratch and I ran into a lot of financial problems. I tried different banks and no one was ready to help me with that."

That was when Mancini turned to the Enterprise Development Group. It is a non-profit organization that offers micro-loans mostly to refugees and immigrants in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.

Tsehaye Teferra is the president of Ethiopian Community Development Council or ECDC. It is the parent organization of the development group. He initiated the group's micro-enterprise program in 1992. "In order to be qualified for regular banks, number one, you must have had some credit history in this country, which many of our clients don't have. Therefore (because) these clients do not have prior credit history, they are automatically disqualified."

In the past 14 years, Teferra says, the Enterprise Development Group has helped about 1,000 small start-ups with loans totaling close to nine million dollars. The minimum loan is $500; the maximum is $35,000. The group receives support largely from the federal government's Small Business Administration and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Local governments and private banks also provide backing. Under federal regulations, the Enterprise Development Group cannot lend money to illegal immigrants. "Our mission is to help people to become self-sufficient and contributing members of the society," says Teferra. "You must have the desire, energy and interest to be a successful businessperson in this country."

Ana Lopez used to be an art teacher in the Philippines. She thinks she has what it takes to be successful. She says she received a $20,000 loan from the group to buy equipment and supplies when she opened a custom framing shop five years ago. "I (also) buy artwork from starving artists who are gifted in third world countries such as Philippines, India, Bangladesh. Africa is also where I have an artist. So I would like to be an outlet for people who are very gifted and talented but do not have opportunities to show their art, to exhibit their art. That is what Hope Gallery is all about."

Like Mancini, Lopez expects eventually to outgrow the need for micro-loans, and be able to qualify for conventional loans. They also believe that while they try to reach their goals of opening a chain of shops, they will help create employment opportunities for low-income people in the region.

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