Chasing the Dream
Political refugees flee the worst places on earth to launch businesses in America.
By Eilene Zimmerman/San Diego

(FORTUNE Small Business) – LIKE MOST ENTREPRENEURS, Hajia Kangame rarely dwells on the past. She stays plenty busy running her San Diego handicraft business and raising four daughters. But Kangame, 37, will never forget the day the rebel militia came to her village in Somalia. They ordered the residents to turn over all their clothing, jewelry, food, and furniture. Then they shot Kangame's elderly parents in the head.

Kangame belongs to Somalia's persecuted Bantu minority. When civil war broke out in 1991, thousands of Bantu were enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed. But Kangame was luckier than most. After the rebels killed her parents, she managed to escape, along with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. The family trekked through arid bush for two days without food or water. They reached the provincial town of Kismaayo, then shifted to the capital, Mogadishu.

Kangame and her family kept moving for the next five years, trying to stay alive. In 1996, Kangame's husband was abducted and tortured by another rebel band. He barely survived. But that year the family caught a second break. Now with four daughters in tow, they made it across the Kenyan border to the relative safety of a refugee camp.

Three years ago Kangame and her family were admitted to the U.S. as political refugees. They settled in San Diego, where Kangame launched the Somali Bantu Women's Cooperative, a startup handicraft business that employs 16 women. Kangame's goals right now are modest, but very American. "If we succeed," she says, "maybe my children can go to college, and my family can be happy."

The U.S. admitted nearly 53,000 political refugees in 2005. Many have overcome linguistic, cultural, and financial obstacles to start their own businesses. Like the other refugee entrepreneurs pictured here, Kangame received help from the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee (, a charity based in New York City that helps refugees and victims of armed conflict around the world. The IRC helped Kangame create a website (, catalog, and marketing plan targeting socially conscious consumers. It also arranged several microgrants from Trickle Up (, another New York–based nonprofit that provides seed capital and training to help poverty-stricken individuals launch businesses in California and ten other states. Since 2004 the IRC has provided financing and business counseling to 43 refugee startups in San Diego. Eighty percent of those entrepreneurs are still in business. Here are some of their stories.


IN IRAN HE WAS A successful developer and builder. But Amir (not his real name) was also a member of the persecuted Baha'i faith. After enduring death threats, he paid a smuggler to sneak him and his family out of Iran. In 2003 Amir and his family entered the U.S. as political refugees. They settled in San Diego, where Amir found work as a handyman. But he dreamed of running his own business again. "It is hard to work for other people," says Amir, 43. His dream came true in March 2005, when the IRC loaned him $10,000 to buy a truck and tools.

Ofelia Nieto

THIS COLOMBIAN REFUGEE AND HER husband once ran a thriving bakery in Bogotá. Their success attracted the attention of Colombia's rebel FARC militia, which demanded protection money. "We didn't have enough to pay what they wanted," recalls Nieto, 38. "They said they would kidnap and kill us." So Nieto and her family fl ed to the U.S. In January 2006 the IRC arranged $1,150 in microloans to help Nieto launch a jewelry business called Hands of the Andes (

Velibor Deretic

ALONG WITH HIS WIFE AND 17-YEAR-old daughter, this Bosnian refugee reached San Diego in 1999. Deretic once owned two restaurants and an import-export business in Sarajevo. But at the height of the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s, surviving each day in Sarajevo "was like winning the lottery." In 1994, Deretic and his family fled the city through a tunnel dug underneath an airport runway. The Deretics spent four years living in Germany while they waited for the U.S. to grant them refugee status. In San Diego, Deretic got a maintenance job at a Holiday Inn. In 1991 he bought a stretch limo and launched Majestic Limousine ( with help from the IRC, which loaned him $10,000 and helped him write a business plan. The IRC also taught his wife, Senka, how to use accounting software. Today Senka keeps the books for Majestic, which grossed $100,000 in 2005. Success has allowed the Deretics to buy a house and send their daughter to college. "Look at me," he says. "I have a good life. I love it here."

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