The entrepreneurial refugees bringing the world to bluegrass country

Refugees are building new lives in Kentucky, adding a multicultural dimension to a state not previously known for its diversity

Abdullatif Dalati, second right, and his family have helped to build a new community in Kentucky. Photo: Stephen Starr
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The shawarma spits, a water fountain and the soothing voice of George Wassouf wafting from the speakers overhead might make for a regular restaurant scene in Istanbul, Beirut or even London. But here, in the US state of Kentucky, the Syrian Grill is a long way from those places.

Aleppo native Abdullatif Dalati, the restaurant’s owner, has food service running in his blood.

“I ran restaurants in Aleppo and Tartous, and my father had restaurants in Aleppo. Before him, his father had his own restaurant too,” he says from a bench seat inside his expansive Louisville business, a space that features a prayer room, music stage and several divans.

Fleeing the war, in which large areas of his hometown were destroyed by regime bombing, Mr Dalati first came to Kentucky in 2015, and was immediately keen to continue his cooking.

“At first, I worked in a phone shop for two years, and on weekends I cooked food out of my house,” he says.

Abdullatif Dalati has cooked for the mayor of Louisville and the governor of Kentucky. Photo: Stephen Starr

He prides himself on having cooked for the mayor of Louisville and the governor of Kentucky and has rented out a space next door to an Iraqi man who has opened a Middle Eastern grocery shop.

“When we built this [restaurant], I did every single thing: the tiles, the paint, the layout,” he says. “For the kitchen, I find the freshest food and I oversee the cooking myself.”

Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, might be well known for horses, bluegrass music and producing baseball bats, but in recent years the city has taken on a distinctly multicultural hue.

Today, scores of refugees are building anew in Louisville, and across Kentucky, all the while adding a multicultural dimension to a state previously not known for its diversity. In November, Louisville was redesignated as a certified “Welcoming City” by the national non-profit, Welcoming America.

Louisville is better known for hosting the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs than as a magnet for immigrants and refugees. Photo: Stephen Starr

The Kentucky Refugee Ministries and other organisations have been helping to resettle refugees in Louisville since 1990, with the city becoming a major centre for, in particular, Cuban immigrants, well over 10,000 of whom have made new homes here in the past two decades.

Kentucky is thought to be home to about 160,000 immigrants who contributed $4.5 billion to the state’s economy in 2019, according to the American Immigration Council, a non-profit organisation. And while immigrants make up just 4.2 per cent of the state’s population, immigrant entrepreneurs make up nearly 7 per cent of all Kentucky businesses, and nearly 6 per cent of the state’s total workforce.

Louisville isn’t alone.

Several thousand refugees have been resettled in Lexington, Kentucky's second largest city, over the past decade, with many coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Among them is Elisha Mutayongwa, who for several years ran a pop-up ice-cream shop ― Chui’s Ice Cream & Soda Pop — with his now-deceased brother, in the city's Julietta Market, a public market.

“Ice cream is very common, it’s a conversation opener. Parents get it for their kids, and that’s a way to get involved in the community,” he says.

“Lexington is a little smaller [than cities that are popular with immigrants], and a lot of people don’t know that there’s an African community here.”

The venture has been so successful that in December, Mr Mutayongwa announced that the shop would transform to a mobile trailer business this year. But Mr Mutayongwa has not been focused only on building a business. Three years ago, he founded a language centre for immigrants from central and eastern Africa to learn Swahili, which today is as Lexington’s third most spoken language.

Having also set up shop in the same Lexington market, Habibi's Sweets, which sells Turkish coffee, baklava and other Middle Eastern foods, last May expanded to a second location in a popular mall in Lexington. It's been voted one of the best bakeries in the city in annual public polls.

Even smaller Kentucky neighbourhoods are becoming homes for new communities of refugees. In December, three Afghan entrepreneurs set up the first Afghan restaurant in Owensboro, population 60,000, after a local cafe agreed to share its kitchen space with them.

Abdullatif Dalati rents a space next to his restaurant to an Iraqi man who opened a Middle East grocery shop. Photo: Stephen Starr

Challenges, however, are common. This year, the Biden administration has set a lofty goal of resettling 125,000 refugees nationwide. That is a major task considering the White House had similar goals for last year, when fewer than 12,000 people were resettled.

For states such as Kentucky, which has, for the most part, struggled to attract outsiders to settle there, more refugees would further help to breathe new life into its cities and towns.

Yet, only several hundred out of an estimated 75,000 Afghan refugees who have come to the US after the Taliban takeover of August 2021 have been or are expected to be resettled in Kentucky.

Since reopening after having to temporarily close in 2020 because of the pandemic the economy has been difficult, Mr Mutayongwa says.

“But what’s kept me going, who’s been my biggest supporters, are the other businesses around me,” he says.

Still, Mr Mutayongwa and Mr Dalati are in agreement that there are opportunities for immigrants thinking of starting a business in the Bluegrass State. The former’s main advice for would-be immigrant entrepreneurs thinking of starting up in Kentucky is to stick at it.

“Commitment and consistency are key. It takes a lot to start a business. A lot of people go the safe route and start a shop selling African goods,” Mr Mutayongwa says.

“But there are a lot of resources for people who would like to set up a different business here. They need to be aware of the support that is available.”

For Mr Dalati, success in the food business is all about the detail.

“You need to know every little piece and detail of the business,” he says. “You need to be aware of every single ingredient in your food.”

Syrian Grill is one of a small but growing number of Middle Eastern restaurants in Kentucky. Photo: Stephen Starr
Updated: February 10, 2023, 6:00 PM