Volunteers help immigrant businesses during pandemic

MINOT, N.D. (AP) – Culture differences, language and often other barriers can stand in the way of immigrant business owners who could benefit from assistance programs to help them navigate the new world created by COVID-19.

A newly organized New American/Foreign Born/Immigrant Advisory Board to the state departments of Health and Human Services has taken on the task of raising awareness and educating immigrants on the state’s new Economic Resiliency Grant (ERG) program, designed to help businesses adjust their services and increase consumer confidence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenge is that immigrants often don’t know grants are available to them, said Iredia “Ray” Osadolor, Minot, a member of the advisory board. Even when they are aware, it can be difficult for them to determine whether they are eligible and could benefit, he said. Immigrants tend to be careful about applying for grants or other opportunities because they don’t want to make a mistake that could affect their legal status or cause other harm, he said.

Kouadjo Bini, a Minot board member who has been reaching out to the immigrant communities in the Williston area, told the Minot Daily News that immigrants fear an unintended error could reinforce the societal stigma they already face.

“The grant process is a really meticulous process, because at the end of the day, they want to justify every single penny that is spent. So knowing those challenges, immigrants tend to be reluctant to apply or to even adventure themselves into such things,” Bini said. “At the end of the day, those mom-and-pop immigrant shops pay taxes too. I think they have the right to use them, but just because the circumstances around them is somewhat different, they tend to stay in the shadow.”

The result is immigrant businesses get left behind and struggle to a greater degree. Osadolor said immigrant businesses are heavily affected by the coronavirus economy because their enterprises – commonly restaurants, specialty groceries or child care – are more likely to require daily contact with customers.

Osadolor and Bini said the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce has taken steps to reach out to immigrant businesses through its newsletters and other targeted information to members. In conjunction with that effort, Osadolor has been locating and visiting with immigrant business owners to educate them about the ERG assistance.

Bini said Williston already has a structure to work within because small immigrant communities already are in place that connect people of similar heritages or languages.

Osadolor said the plan is to organize a community meeting in Minot with immigrants to talk about the challenges they face. He can bring those concerns to the advisory board, which advises the state in developing policies to ease the challenges.

Both Bini and Osadolor work in the information technology field and can use that expertise to aid immigrant business owners in navigating available funding assistance. They graduated from Minot State University in 2015 – Bini with a bachelor’s degree and Osadolor with a master’s degree.

However, volunteers are needed who can bring expertise in other areas, such as accounting or literacy. These volunteers need not be immigrants themselves.

“We can spread the word but we also want help from other people that are willing to volunteer. They’ll be more than welcome to join us and help immigrant businesses in town,” Bini said.

People interested in volunteering or immigrants needing information can connect with Osadolor or Bini through the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce. Information also is available through the state Health Equity Office online at health.nd.gov/health-equity.

“We know that health equity is not simply about ensuring equal access to health care, though this is important,” the Health Equity Office said in a statement. “We know that health equity can only be achieved when we consider the full environment in which people live, work, and play. This includes things such as having adequate housing, safe places for children to play, a fulfilling job with appropriate compensation, and so much more.

“Like so many businesses across North Dakota, many immigrant-owned businesses have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Economic Resiliency Grant offered through the North Dakota Department of Commerce is one way to support businesses in North Dakota. Unfortunately, we know that some immigrant businesses may not have the same access to information about this grant that others have,” the statement continued. “At the Health Equity Office, we have been working closely with the Department of Commerce to share this grant opportunity widely to all North Dakota residents. For immigrant-owned businesses, we are helping to connect businesses with local volunteers – often immigrants themselves – who are trying to support their communities.”

North Dakota has a sizable immigrant population, Osadolor said. Osadolor and Bini said the immigrant population in Minot and Williston is diverse, with smaller numbers than in the state’s larger cities but with broad representation from across the world.

Osadolor said the advisory board would like to get a better account of the numbers of immigrants in the state and determine the number of business owners. Having this information in Minot could lead to an association being formed that can serve as a resource to new immigrants to help them integrate into the community, he said.

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