According to the New American Economy 2017 report, refugees contribute meaningfully to our economy. Not only are refugees’ earners and taxpayers, they have entrepreneurship rates that outshine even that of immigrants. The United States was home to more than 180,000 Refugee entrepreneurs in 2015. In that year alone, refugee business owners generated $4.6 billion in income. In addition, 13% of Refugees were entrepreneurs, compared to just 11.5% of non-refugee immigrants and 9% of the U.S. born population.
Weldy Gezehen’s story illustrates how a former refugee has contributed to the local Tucson economy. It was always Weldy Gezehen’s dream to own his own restaurant. His dream was put on hold when Weldy and his family had to flee the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Eritrea and embark on a new life as refugees in neighboring Ethiopia. Currently there are 357,406 Eritrean refugees fleeing violence, persecution, torture, and indefinite national service at the hand of the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, who came to power after a 30-year war with Ethiopia.
Like many fleeing Eritreans, the trek to neighboring Ethiopia was full of risk and fear, but eventually the Gezehen family made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was in this camp, Weldy once again began dreaming of owning his own restaurant. “I really thought it out and thought about it every day, step by step; I finally had hope and I began thinking about moving forward to a new future” says Weldy.
Finally, three years after arriving in the Ethiopian refugee camp, the Gezehen family got the news they would be resettled in Tucson, Arizona. Weldy was overcome with joy as he thought of all the possibilities that came with being resettled in the United States. With the IRC’s help, the Gezehen family was settled into their new home and Weldy began his first job as a dishwasher. He looks back on these first years of resettlement as a stepping stone to his dream: “It was really hard when I was working as a dishwasher; I felt like I was always being complained at and it was tearing me down mentally. What got me through it was thinking about owning my own restaurant.”
After working as a dishwasher for four years, Weldy and his wife saved enough money to put a down payment on their very own restaurant called “Queen Sheba Eritrean Restaurant.” Speaking of this moment, a flush of gratitude crossed his face when he said, “This was our dream, and we finally accomplished it; we finally made it.”
Since the opening of Queen Sheba, Weldy has been able to employ six newly resettled refugees, being able to give them their first American jobs. He regards them as a big family and says that everyone can work towards their own dreams in peace. When we asked Weldy what he would like other refugees to take from his story he humbly stated, “I was starting from 0 as a dishwasher; I always did my best work. Don’t give up. Everyone can do their best work. Everyone can make their dreams come true. Work hard and save your money. Don’t give up on your dreams, just make a plan. First, before you see any person, you must see yourself. Trust yourself and don’t give up, and you too will be able to reach your dreams.”
Weldy Gezehen- Refugee Restaurant Owner Photo: IRC Tucson