Integrating refugees into local economies

Published: Oct. 21, 2016

A women with braided hair and an apron sits on a couch and laughs with two co-workers, whose backs are to the camera, during their lunch break.Hana (right) is seen with co-workers at Knotty Tie Co., a Denver-based tie company that creates employment opportunities for skilled resettled refugees. She learned to sew at a refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing her native country of Ethiopia. (Photo courtesy Knotty Tie Co.)

Acting on a United Nations call for U.S. business schools to help facilitate the integration of refugees into local economies, the University of Colorado Boulder will host the Regional Summit on Refugee Issues beginning at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Kittredge Central building.

Hosted by students and fellows of the Center for Education on Social Responsibility (CESR), part of CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, the event is free and open to the public (registration required). Designed to

Hibo Ali Wehliye hovers intently over a sewing machine as she stitches green fabric.

Hibo Ali Wehliye grew up in Somalia and has resettled in the U.S. She aspires to become a professional designer. (Photo courtesy Knotty Tie Co.)

examine the challenges that hinder the integration of refugees into local economies, the summit will bring together Colorado business schools, businesses, nonprofit and humanitarian organizations, as well as local governments.

Of the student leaders, Mark Meaney, executive director of CESR said, “They are especially interested in promoting a positive narrative that focuses on the contributions refugees make to communities.”

The summit will explore how Colorado business schools can help promote economic growth by assisting refugees with entrepreneurship and finding ways to fill in any skill gaps. Research shows that refugees often start new businesses that create wealth, employ local residents and stimulate investment, according to Meaney.

“Refugees often have the knowledge, skill set and experience to allow them to be ready for employment, and yet they are sweeping floors,” said Meaney. 
Ways that business schools can assist refugees include offering scholarships for business or entrepreneurial classes, or year-long vocational programs that provide refugees a platform to prove they have high-level skills, Meaney said.

Meaney, who also is chair of a U.N. initiative on responsible management education (PRME), said that many refugees have completed degrees in their homelands, but that often U.S. employers don’t recognize those degrees.

Summit speakers will include Kit Taintor, a state refugee coordinator; Jeremy Priest co-founder of a company that employs refugees to create eco-friendly handmade products; and James Horan, vice president of a refugee and asylee services organization.

The Leeds School is one of only a handful of business schools nationwide that responded to the U.N. call, said Nikolay Ivanov, a U.N. PRME coordinator.

“The summit is a great example of what one school is doing,”  Ivanov said. 

The summit also has attracted the attention of the oldest refugee resettlement agency in the U.S., HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. 

If You Go

Who: Free and open to all
What: Regional Summit on Refugee Issues by the Center for Education on Social Responsibility
When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wed., Oct. 26
Where: Kittredge Central multipurpose room (2480 Kittredge Loop Drive)
Etc.: Registration required. Includes continental breakfast, lunch and a networking reception.
Contact: Mark Meaney at 303-492-3937 or mark.meaney@colorado.edu

“Refugees need opportunities to participate in the economy,” said Mike Mitchell, a strategic advisor for HIAS. “HIAS is interested in learning and contributing more to Meaney’s work to connect refugees to the positive economic impacts they can make. The summit is a step in learning how we can all ensure refugees become active participants.”

More than 65 million people are displaced in the world today, the highest number on record since the U.N. Refugee Agency began collecting statistics. More than 21 million of these people have crossed international borders in search of safety as refugees. In 2015, 2,250 refugees and refugee-eligible populations were resettled in Colorado, with the majority coming from Burma, Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq, according to the agency. It estimates that the number of refugees resettling in Colorado this year will reach 3,000 by the end of December.

“Refugees face many barriers when trying to integrate into the community, yet if given the right circumstances, they often bring economic prosperity to local areas,” Meaney said.