Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere did not plan to become restaurant owners. Like many asylees, Mamba came to the United States with years of work experience and a hope for a bright future, but he struggled to find work that would sustain his family. Both he and Njimbere wanted stability, but their factory jobs left them desperate to do more. When Mamba realized he could combine his marketing and business savvy with his wife’s skills as a chef, he pursued funding for what is now a cultural and culinary success story for Detroit, Michigan. Their restaurant, Baobab Fare, sits at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue, offering a taste of East Africa and at the same time serving as an example of what displaced newcomers to the U.S. can create when they have access to the economic, social, health, and educational resources to resettle successfully.
Before coming to Detroit, Mamba and Nijimbere lived in their home country of Burundi, where Mamba was a marketing manager and Nijimbere helped her community as a human rights advocate. When Nijimbere’s work made her the target of persecution, she came to the U.S. to seek asylum in 2013. Soon after her arrival in Detroit, she learned she was pregnant with twin girls. Mamba would meet their children two years later when the family finally reunited after he was granted asylum.
The story of separation and reunification is common in displaced communities, especially as the number of people leaving their home countries to seek asylum and refuge continues to increase worldwide. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2020 Global Trends Report, there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide by the end of 2020. More than 4 million of the displaced are asylum-seekers, and in 2019 46,500 were granted asylum in the United States. During the same year, 29,916 refugees were resettled across the country.
Throughout their experience, Mamba and Nadia have maintained their commitment to make a significant impact in Detroit. Their journey saw its beginning at Freedom House, an organization that provides shelter and services to asylum-seekers, where they were connected to ProsperUs Detroit to learn about entrepreneurship. The organization “is a place-based economic development strategy designed to empower low and moderate-income, immigrant, and minority individuals.” It was there that Mamba realized that the professional life he had in his home country of Burundi would not sustain his family in their new city, and decided to embark on the journey to create Baobab Fare.
Since the restaurant opened earlier this year after original opening plans in 2020 were delayed due to COVID-19, it has served as both a safe space and a source of job opportunities for newcomers who are struggling to find employment like Mamba did. Today, Baobab’s team of cooks and servers are all refugees and asylees who are walking a similar path as the restaurant’s owners. Having this access to employment, coupled with the support that comes with working among people who understand their challenges, has given many Detroit-based refugees and other newcomers a sense of belonging and economic stability.
“When we started, this was just me and my family,” said Mamba. “But now … we are making people even more proud,” as they contribute to the growth of Detroit’s East African community.
“Their impact is immense,” said Vittoria Katanski, executive director of Hatch Detroit, the restaurant’s original funder. “Not only are they an economic driver in the area, they open people up to another world. Their story shows a very real face to a problem that many people do not really understand. They had to leave behind their families, their lives, their careers to survive. Their strength is unbelievable. And their food tells the story of their home. Everything in their business is an opportunity for a customer to open their eyes, learn more about another culture.”
Newcomers like Mamba and Nijimbere around the country have a lot to offer to their new homes in terms of cultural and social growth, and they also contribute tremendously when it comes to economic development through the labor market in public and private sectors.
Many cities across the U.S. have thrived economically thanks in large part to displaced immigrant entrepreneurs and workers. A 2017 New American Economy study demonstrated that refugees completely changed the trajectory of the population and economic growth in Buffalo, New York, between 2000 and 2014. Just as the city was suffering a population decline, an increase in refugee resettlement and immigration within the city resulted in rising housing value—by over $950 million—and the revitalization of the manufacturing industry in the area. Among the refugees who have contributed to Buffalo’s economy is Dr. Zenaide Ntiranyibagira, a French professor and real estate entrepreneur who was resettled in the city in the late 1990s after fleeing Burundi and completing her education in Malta, where she studied international relations, communication, and French linguistics.
Like Mamba and Nijimbere, Ntiranyibagira’s dreams were different from what has become her reality. “When I came to Buffalo my dream and goal was to be a newsreader [or] journalist on CNN because I always admired Christian Amanpour,” she said. Instead, she continued her education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she completed her PhD in French. While in graduate school, Ntiranyibagira also served her community as a linguist for the U.S. Federal Courts.
In the last decade, she and her husband have provided housing for Buffalo residents as landlords. Her business consists of rehabilitating homes in various neighborhoods and renting them affordably to families that would otherwise struggle to find homes.
“Back in ‘99, I was living on the east side [of Buffalo],” Dr. Ntiranyibagira said. “[There were] so many abandoned houses. Now with [the] Buffalo renaissance, there are so many new homes, even Habitat for Humanity homes that are owned by Burundians.”
Mamba and Ntiranyibagira’s journeys to the U.S. might have been different, but they have both faced every challenge head-on and created a lasting impact on their respective communities. Mamba’s advice to other immigrant entrepreneurs is to “be patient, and dare” to pursue their dreams.