Within six years of arriving in Boise, Idaho, Iraqi refugee Salam Bunyan – forced from his Baghdad home for working alongside the U.S. military – successfully realized his version of the American dream by opening his own restaurant.
It was the culmination of 17 years of culinary experience earned among Iraq, a Jordan refugee camp and Boise itself, and he named the Middle Eastern eatery “The Goodness Land.”
“Business is very good,” Bunyan said of the restaurant’s success over the past year. “I have big support in the community.”
Bunyan’s story is emblematic of the give-and-take many seeking asylum in the United States experience. Though the safety and financial support provided by their new home grants refugees the opportunity to build new lives, the communities in which they are resettled often find themselves reaping the economic benefits that come with an expanded tax base, supplemented workforce and greater diversity of businesses – like The Goodness Land.
“Refugees over time tend to contribute to growth and economic vitality in any community, and we certainly feel that in Boise,” said Patty Haller, assistant director of the Idaho Office for Refugees. “Most Boiseans see refugees in our community as a very positive influence.”
If refugees weren’t self-sufficient, that would be a problem, but that’s not what’s happening.
Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho’s Refugee Center
As the national debate over admitting Syrian refugees continues, many economists and refugee advocates across the nation fear that public officials are missing a salient point: Although refugees require a minimal amount of cash assistance to get them on their feet, their rapid integration into the workplace and atypical upward mobility have been shown to boost GDP growth and employment rates for the nations that offer them legal residence – the United States among them.
“Even though initially they get public support, in most cases they lose that and rely quickly on work,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s a strength of the U.S. system and of the economy.”
Through rapid integration into the workforce, refugees begin contributing back to the economy faster than any other class of immigrant. In fact, 80 percent of refugees find a job within their first few months in the country, said Senior Policy Advisor for Oxfam Noah Gottschalk.
This is mostly thanks to the refugee resettlement agencies handling their cases, which make it a point to find each new arrival employment within 90 days.
“Because of their assistance in that process, they’re very quickly able to become productive members of society contributing back into the economy,” Gottschalk said.
The paychecks earned in these first months of employment mean a portion of their salary is paid in taxes, contributing back to the tax base that helped get them on their feet.
Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho’s Refugee Center, gives the example of a refugee who found work at a local dairy plant. Although the agency spent $2,600 to help resettle him, the man’s annual salary of $26,000 meant he paid $4,800 in taxes in that first year alone.
“Looking at how much money we spend resettling a refugee and how much they pay into the tax fund, it’s not comparable,” Rwasama said. “If refugees weren’t self-sufficient, that would be a problem, but that’s not what’s happening.”
The economic benefits aren’t just at the federal level, either.
$48 million The 2012 impact of refugees in Cleveland – 10 times the cost of their resettlement – according to an economic study
Once refugees are employed, they’re able to pay rent, buy groceries, and otherwise act as consumers in the communities that have welcomed them. This provides an often much needed boost to the local economy, something cities across the nation are coming to appreciate.
According to a study by Chmura Economics & Analytics that focused on Cleveland, Ohio, refugee service organizations spent $4.8 million resettling refugees in that region in 2012. That number was vastly overshadowed by the economic impact those same refugees were calculated to have on the area – about $48 million, about ten times the resettlement costs.
This positive impact is likely due to the fact that once they’re financially stable, refugees enjoy a level of prosperity unmatched by that of other immigrant classes.
In a 2004 study, Kalena Cortes, then a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, found that over the course of a decade, refugees had earned 20 percent more, worked 4 percent more hours, and improved their English skills by 11 percent more than their economic migrant counterparts.
This discrepancy is likely the result of a refugee’s unique life experiences, said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to the free market. Having been denied every other option available to them, he said, those who seek asylum are often more than ready to throw themselves headfirst into whatever opportunities they may be granted.
Refugees are more likely to work, more likely to work more hours, and more likely to see poverty reduction than similarly skilled Americans.
Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the Cato Institute
“Refugees are more likely to work, more likely to work more hours, and more likely to see poverty reduction than similarly skilled Americans,” Nowrasteh said. “They’re more upwardly mobile than other immigrants or natives, just because they start at such a low level and many are interested in putting down firm roots in their new country.”
With nowhere else to turn, refugees are forced to make a long-term commitment to the country they’ve been resettled in, devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the language, the culture, and other aspects of the communities in which they find themselves, he said.
“A lot of economic migrants to the U.S. have the option of returning home – refugees do not have that option,” Nowrasteh said. “So they have to make that permanent investment – learning English, getting an education.”
The Syrian advantage
Syrian refugees in particular may be even better equipped to make that investment than others, data show. Hailing from a country with relatively high education rates, Syrians are more likely than other immigrants to have high school, college and graduate degrees, Capps said.
“Prior to the war, Syria had high levels of education, which shows in the population of Syrian immigrants residing in the U.S. now,” Capps said. “We don’t expect the profile of a Syrian refugee to be any different.”
Forty percent of Syrian immigrants hold a college degree, while only 30 percent of immigrants overall do, Capps said.
Forty-nine percent of Syrian immigrants hold professional jobs, while for foreign-born Americans overall hold 38 percent, Capps said.
“It means there’s a good chance they’ll do well here.”
For proof, experts invite Americans to look elsewhere. Although the United States has accepted only a trickle of Syrian refugees – less than 2,000 so far, too small a percentage of the population to draw conclusions at home – European countries who have welcomed higher numbers of the asylum seekers have already seen economic impacts.
The European Commission’s fall economic forecasts, for example, calculate that the 3 million refugee arrivals expected before the end of 2016 will produce increases in annual GDP growth ranging from 0.2 to 0.5 percent, while also serving to “translate into additional employment.”
This research is perhaps illustrated best in Turkey, where over 1.8 million Syrians have been resettled already. As a result, the World Bank has revealed the creation of new, higher-wage jobs that allowed for the “occasional upgrading of Turkish workers.”
“What’s happening in Turkey where a decent number (of Syrians) have been allowed to work and start businesses is key to fleshing out what’s going to happen in the United States,” Nowrasteh said. “The wages of many mid- and high-skilled Turkish workers were pushed up because the Syrians occupied the jobs at the bottom of the labor market.”
Back to Boise
Just two months ago, Bunyan’s restaurant – along with others in the Boise International Market where it was located –burned down in a devastating fire.
But despite the setback, Bunyan is making strides forward, saving funds and looking for a new location. He credits his ability to do so to the local community, which he says supports him at every turn.
“Everyday people call me and tell me they want to do anything they can to help,” Bunyan said. “I don’t see anyone who doesn’t help me.”