From Fortune 500 companies to spelling bees and science fairs, immigrants and their children figure prominently as achievers, entrepreneurs and innovators across our country.  They also make enormous contributions to the economy. 

These conclusions are backed up by some striking statistics in Franziska Castillo’s article, “Safe Havens,” in Latina magazine’s March 2012 issue.  The article featured Dayton, Ohio, where AFSC helped develop and is contributing to the “Welcome Dayton Plan,” a city resolution that recognizes immigrants as key partners in economic development – and paves the way for their success. 

The potential for immigrants to spur economic development, stabilize neighborhoods and revitalize cities comes as no surprise to Migwe Kimemia, director of AFSC’s Dayton program.  

“They don’t see poverty.  They see opportunities,” he says of the refugees he works with every day. “Some of the gifts they’ve brought, you would not believe.”    

Years ago, Sudanese children helped show the world what was happening in Darfur through their drawings.  Their skillful renderings of bombs being dropped on villages drew media attention and stood in contrast with government claims.  Now, people stand in line at Dayton’s International Festival to receive gorgeous temporary tattoos from Sudanese women whose special approach to drawing has become a microenterprise.

At the AFSC office, Cirilo Modi, another refugee from the Sudan war, is also sharing his talents.  The sewing skills he learned in a refugee camp helped him land a job operating industrial sewing machines at a Dayton factory.  Now, in addition to working full time, going to community college, and raising a large family, he is volunteering his time to help other immigrants learn the skills they need to qualify for similar opportunities.  He also serves on AFSC’s Dayton Program Committee and is executive director of the new Dayton African Community Center.

Migwe notes that not only are refugees eager to land on their feet and contribute to the local economy, but they also have important gifts to offer in a variety of workplace and community settings.  Nursing homes are a foreign concept in many African countries, for example.  But respect for the elderly and traditions of home care help many African workers bring a special touch to nursing homes in the US – one that leaves patients feeling well cared for and highly appreciative.  Teachers similarly note the respectful attitude and academic engagement refugee children show in schools that are too often sabotaged by the effects of violence and poverty in the surrounding neighborhoods.

As the “Welcome Dayton Plan” unfolds in the coming months and years, AFSC will help facilitate a fair trade approach to business development in the city.  When women from Burundi make traditional clothing and necklaces to sell in Dayton’s emerging international quarter, we hope they will use materials procured from their home country, contributing to sustainable livelihoods in both places.   And we know that as Dayton welcomes its newest residents and embraces their gifts, the whole city will benefit.  The numbers on that are in.