When the war in Sudan forced him to flee his native country in 1996, Osama Elkhawad arrived in the United States with only $200 in his pocket.
He settled in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. With no friends or family, he was able to make his way by joining the African Refugee Network. His background was in accounting, but he found work at a gasoline station in 1997, and vowed to learn everything about the business. By 2000 he was able to open his own shop, Barcroft Auto Services.
"It's not easy. It's very difficult, because I started from zero," remembers Elkhawad. "I built up my own customers - my friends the neighborhood. I distributed flyers, talk to neighbors about offering them many kinds of services, until I made a lot of customers start coming to me in less than a year."
He says his struggles paid off handsomely after he developed a savvy business strategy. Virginia state law requires motor vehicles be inspected and pass an emissions test every two years. If Elkhawad could buy a diagnostic machine for these tests, he could generate new business by detecting autos in need of repair. But he could not afford the machine, and banks were not eager to extend a loan to an immigrant with no credit history.
"At first I didn't have a machine, because it cost almost $50,000 at the time and I didn't have money to do it. I tried my best to go to all the banks. They refused to give me any line of credit or any credit card to buy the machine," says Elkhawad. He finally got the loan from an organization called the Ethiopian Community Development Council Enterprise Development Group (ECDC) and was able to buy the necessary equipment.
Elkhawad explains that he keeps his business competitive against larger gasoline companies by buying gas from the open market at the lowest price.
"When I bought [the business], it was owned by Chevron, a big gas company," Elkhawad says. "So I bought them. I bought the place then I bought the Chevron out."
Fourteen years after arriving in the United States with only $200 to his name, Osama Elkhawad has made it to the middle class. His business has a repetitive income stream, and he is able to give back to the community. Elkhawad now employs six immigrants who help to operate the diagnostic equipment - newcomers to America, as he once was.