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November 22, 2016

Connecting With Immigrants Who Own and Manage Businesses

By Linda Bergquist

Sometimes new immigrants around the world live in ethnic enclaves where a high percentage of residents, restaurants and shops represent different people groups than the surrounding community. Other times, immigrants are disbursed in a larger region, but gather together around religious or social organizations and their events. In either situation, it is easy to connect with them, make new friends, experience cultures, become a peacemaker and share Christ’s love with people who are easy to find. Still another way to connect with various people groups is through their businesses.

From the 1980s when South East Asian refugees began moving to the United States, I have been fascinated to watch different immigrant groups gravitate to particular kinds of vocations. At the time, I was beginning to resettle refugees, working with various groups, but spent the most time with Cambodians. I helped them start a church in Fort Worth, Texas and another in San Diego. Many Cambodian women had never learned to read or write in any language, so I worked with a few of them to help them with those skills. I remember asking the pastor’s wife how well she wanted to know how to read, and she quickly answered that she wanted to learn well enough to get a job in a Cambodian owned donut shop.

Cambodian refugees started independent donut shops all over California in those days. It began in 1980 with a man named Ted Ngoy, also known as the “Donut King.” After he had lived in the United States for a few years, he enrolled in a donut franchise’s managerial program, and upon graduation, he purchased two shops. He began sponsoring Cambodian refugees, gave some jobs in his donut shops, and they in turn learned the business, obtained loans and bought their own shops. Now, around 80% of the donut shops in the Los Angeles and 90% of them in Houston are owned by Cambodian Americans.

During the same time period, Vietnamese women started nail salons. The origins of that trend began 40 years ago when actress Tippi Hedren visited a Vietnamese refugee camp near Sacramento, California, hoping to help women find ways to support themselves in America. The women were enthralled with Hedren’s fingernails, and the rest is history. Interested in meeting some Vietnamese people, or starting a church with Vietnamese? Visit a nail salon. Manicures take a long time, and there is plenty of room for conversation. In the San Francisco Bay Area, people from Yemen now own or manage 80% of Oakland, California’s corner markets, while 30% of the San Francisco Unified School District’s janitor’s union is from Yemen. The latter seems to have begun when one man, who also purchased the property for San Francisco’s Yemeni mosque, began teaching new immigrants how to work at a trade that required little English. Yemeni people now also work in other janitorial services, such as Handy.

The state of Gujarat in India is 83% Hindu, 10% Muslim and 1% Jain. The United States is by far where the largest diaspora Gujarati peoples live. Dalpatbhai Patel, a Gujarati, purchased his first hotel in 1970, beginning what is now known as the “Potel” business. Today, Gujaratis own 42% of the hotels in the United States. Most of them have the surname Patel. The Asian American Hotel Association in the U.S. is made up of 90% Gujaratis. While most of these hotels have been part of smaller, less expensive chains, this is changing, and now major chains are taking notice and inviting them in. Have you ever stayed at a hotel owned and managed by someone from India? Good chance they could be a Hindu of Gujarati descent. What opportunity might you have to introduce Christ to that hotel manager? That hotel is not as likely to keep Gideon Bibles in its rooms, is it?

This past year I have taken rides with Uber in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Washington D.C. and Singapore. Many of the drivers have been immigrants to those cities. They are almost always ready to talk, and are open to pretty much any topic. I remember a conversation in New York with a Muslim driver who was angry with shopkeepers from Yemen because they don’t close their stores and continue to sell alcohol even during Friday mid day prayer times. I told him that I used to drink a lot of alcohol, but stopped when I became a follower of Jesus. Oh, how he grinned! We had something in common. Yes, it was a brief encounter, but what if we all take those few minutes, when we stop at the donut shop, check in at the hotel office, send for an Uber driver, get beautiful at the manicure shop— to simply love on people with the Good News.  Doesn’t it seem like a great way to sow seeds and fertilize rocky soil?


Linda Bergquist

Linda Bergquist is a church planting catalyst, teacher, mentor and author who has been living and working in the SF Bay Area for 22 years. She works among many ethnic groups, and has a special interest in least reached people groups. Bergquist is an advocate of all kinds of churches and church planting methodologies. She has coauthored three books: City Shaped Churches, Church Turned Inside Out and The Wholehearted Church Planter, and is the author of the Exponential series e-book The Great Commission and the Rest of Creation.


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