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Khalid Ahmadzai was riding in his car on I-49 in Fayetteville, Ark., in late March when he heard a report on NPR about pandemic mask-making.
Ahmadzai, the director of economic advancement for a nonprofit called Canopy, had helped to create his friend Abwe Abedi’s resume. Abedi had worked as a tailor in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania. Abedi and his family spent 22 years there before arriving in Northwest Arkansas in 2018.
Ahmadzai quickly took the exit toward his friend’s house.
“Abwe,” he said, calling as he got closer. “Are you there?”
“I just came back from Chik Fil A,” Abedi answered. The father with six children at home was working for $13 an hour as a dishwasher.
Ahmadzai told him about the news report on the radio. “Can you make masks?” he asked excitedly. An entrepreneur himself, Ahmadzai knew Abedi’s dream was to start a sewing operation.
“If I see it, I can make it,” Abedi answered.
The two men had arrived in Northwest Arkansas at about the same time, two years ago, leaving homelands to shape new lives in the United States. Ahmadzai’s work in Afghanistan had grown dangerous as the violence in the country grew. As for Abedi — after spending 22 years in a refugee camp, living in the bush, Abedi’s family was able to get one of the few slots because one of his daughters had worsening sickle cell anemia.
“I like to say, this program was like a resurrection for us,” he said in an interview.
They were lucky to be in the United States – but maybe, as the rest of their story developed, luckiest to have found each other.
A Shrinking Number Of Slots
The Trump administration slashed the cap on refugee resettlement to 18,000 last year from a peak of 85,000 during the Obama years; advocates for refugees, who are thoroughly vetted before coming to the United States, are worried that this year will see an outright ban. (Even the 85,000 number is low in a global context. Though the U.S. has been a leader in refugee resettlement (permanent relocation), many other countries host many more refugees. Turkey, for instance, has 3.6 million, and Colombia, 1.8 million, according to the United Nations.)
The Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment isn’t shared across all Republican states. Large employers often advocate for immigration, because they need to fill jobs. Given the option to reject refugees by the Trump Administration early this year, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson chose to welcome them. “Immigrants bring energy, thirst for freedom, and a desire to pursue the American dream. This is America’s strength and part of our future,” he said in a statement at the time.
Ahmadzai had attended the University of Arkansas starting in 2009. After a master’s program at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Ark., he decided to return home with his wife and three children to help rebuild Afghanistan. He was working for a British nonprofit that sold Afghan rugs, when, in 2017, a truck bomb explosion killed and injured 1,000. As the attacks grew more regular, he decided to return to Arkansas to start a rug business there. The hustle is part of his genetic makeup, he says.
“I’m an entrepreneur by nature,” he said. Back in Kabul, “in seventh grade, I established a currency exchange. I Paid for English and computer classes by selling bread and milk.”
At the same time, his contacts from his school years soon scooped him up into a job at Canopy, a refugee support organization. Northwest Arkansas’s refugee community includes people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq and Iran.
Launched in 2016, Canopy has a $750,000 annual budget and a staff of about eight. As part of his work, Ahmadzai leads its new entrepreneurship program. It launched straight into the pandemic this spring, using a curriculum from the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Ahmadzai knew how hard it was for refugees to get on their feet. They have 90 days to be self-sufficient, which means many take low-paying exhausting jobs that make it hard to move forward (though few complain). When families arrive, refugee services staff asks what they’d like to do. Ahmadzai knew they often responded: “I want to be my own boss.”
The pandemic slowed the project, but the nonprofit winnowed the class size to 10 and went forward in mid-July. During a 12-week training, refugees create a business plan. There’s also technical assistance and helping refugees obtain space. Canopy is working on establishing relationships with local CDFIs and banks that might lend the refugees money.
Abedi signed up: he wanted to create a business that would teach women, especially immigrants and refugees, how to sew. He knew that many women in refugee families get stuck in their homes without much chance to learn English.
Back in the refugee camp, where his family arrived after fleeing war in Democrative Republic of Congo, in 1996, he taught medical and sewing classes. That made his job at Chik Fil A hard: He became a dishwasher, and felt the decline in respect.
“It was a big change,” he acknowledged. “But we may be flexible, in every situation.”
When COVID-19 hit, things got even harder. His hours at Chik Fil A were cut.
They were used to getting by on very little. In the refugee camp, each person’s daily ration in the camp was 560 grams of food – a few tablespoons of beans, oil and sugar, less than a cup of flour, and about a cup of corn soya blend. But the critical thing was whether they could pay the rent of $1,324.50 on their small house.
Ahmadzai’s idea for a mask-making operation felt like a Godsend. They went to Joanne’s Fabric. “We might have been the first two men in there in a long time,” Ahmadzai said.
Ahmadzai bought and cut the material and brought it to Abedi. They put up a Facebook page and instantly saw demand from California to New York to Florida. The page has sold more than 600 masks so far; Abedi is now training his wife and a family friend to make the masks, paying $3.50 – and to do tailoring.
As the company was growing, Abedi and Ahmadzai kept thinking about how they could fulfill Abedi’s original vision to teach many refugee women to sew. A contact put Ahmadzai in touch with Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum, a nonprofit that promotes a local fashion industry.
“They had a space and liked the idea,” Ahmadzai said. Then, the forum got a grant to produce masks – and invited Abedi to come and teach a class. “He just rocked it.”
A full-time job offer for $16.35 an hour came next, with benefits. “He’s getting paid to do what he dreamed,” Ahmadzai said.
A Final Gift
Over the summer, Abedi called Ahmadzai to ask for help soon after he started selling the masks. He had some other gifts to make. Abedi wanted donate 25 masks to the place where he learned English, Fayetteville Adult Education Center, and 50 to his children’s schools, and 25 to somewhere Ahmadzai picked. The Afghan chose the local chapter of NAACP.
Abedi plans to make some for Asa Hutchinson, too.
“I’ve learned so much from him,” Ahmadzai said. “It translates to gravitas. He comes in with solid conviction. It’s inspiring. He continued to push forward to make his life even under all these conditions.
And when the pandemic started, very early, he said, ‘You have to be open to accept the new normal. It’s going to be alright.’”
This story was produced as part of the Arkansas Reporting Project, focusing on entrepreneurship in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation.