Myanmar native one of many ex-refugees to embrace entrepreneurial spirit

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Posted: Monday, July 22, 2013 12:00 am

Saw “Rocky” Khu's day is familiar to others who own small businesses.

His alarm beeps at 7 a.m., and he crashes around midnight, often later. During the hours in between, Khu drops off and picks up his children and squeezes in part-time hours at Lutheran Family Services, where he works as a caseworker to help refugees get on their feet.

And, of course, he checks in at the businesses he owns with his family.

Khu, who moved to the U.S. 15 years ago as a refugee from Thailand, is the owner of K'Nyaw Poe Asian Market near 90th and Fort Streets. This year, he, his wife, Salweena, and family opened the Salween Thai restaurant and grocery on Northwest Radial about a mile north of Dodge. Among the ventures, they employ about nine people.

His journey of traveling to the U.S. as a refugee and becoming a small-business owner make him one in a small pool. When Khu, who is an ethnic Karen from Myanmar, first arrived here, there was just one Karen-owned business. Now, there are about a handful in the area, including a clothing store, auto repair shop and, in Lincoln, a video production company.

Refugees are entrepreneurial, but it's uncommon for them to open small businesses, particularly if they're new arrivals, said state refugee coordinator Karen Parde. Of employed people born in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — now living somewhere in the U.S., about 4 percent are self-employed, according to Census data provided by David Drozd at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research.

“Just as people who are born here, (refugees) come with all kinds of skills and abilities,” Parde said. “Some find ways to move forward quickly. For others, it takes longer. I love it when I see it happen.”

Ryan Overfield, coordinator of Lutheran Family Service's refugee employment and education program, agreed. Refugees who have been here for a longer time have started to look at owning their own businesses where they can hire other refugees. Khu's business is an example, along with businesses owned by Sudanese, Somalis and Bhutanese, he said.

Khu didn't set out to open a business. Born in the 1960s Burma where Karen people continue to face persecution, he graduated from high school in a Thai refugee camp and later studied medicine. He used his training to perform cataract operations and dental care in remote areas of Burma's jungle. He was also a medic for the Karen National Liberation Army.

“My ambition was to become a doctor, a bone surgeon,” he said.

In 1999, Khu, his wife and young daughter traveled to the U.S. He packed his portable microscope, just in case.

“When we arrive here, everything is a change. No (medical) license,” he said. “When I arrived here, I lost all my interest” in medicine. Other things, like finding a job, home and stable life for his family, took precedence.

Originally settled in Lafayette, La., Khu landed a part-time job at an Asian grocery store. They lived there three months before friends drew them north to St. Paul, Minn.

There, he found a “very good job” at a manufacturer. Khu saved up money and purchased a house. His parents and other relatives started to arrive in the U.S. Khu and his family members became U.S. citizens.

Things were looking up, but with the influx of Karen people moving to St. Paul, they found job opportunities dwindling.

In his search for other cities to live, Omaha looked attractive. Khu's good American friends he met through church lived here. Business appeared to be doing well, and on “every street we found a bank,” he said. Plus, the weather was better than in bone-chilling Minnesota.

They toured the city a handful of times before making the move in 2005. At the time, they were one of three Karen families here. Today, Khu estimates, there are 4,000 people from Myanmar — most of them from the Karen ethnic group, though there are others — in Lincoln and Omaha. Others live in Crete, Schuyler and Grand Island.

Not everything fell into place right away. Khu's Minnesota home sat on the market for nine months until it sold, while he struggled to find a job in Omaha.

“When we first arrived, wow, it was hard,” he said. “A couple years, you don't have a job.”

His friends here helped, opening their home to Khu and his family, which had grown from three to four, plus one on the way.

Finally, Khu found a job when he brought some friends who didn't speak English to Justman Brush Co. for a job opportunity. Because of the language barrier and Khu's good English, the company hired him to work as a machine operator.

“I told the employer I couldn't work a long time, a few months,” he said. “It took me over a year I worked there.”

Khu's stint at Justman led to Design Plastic, another manufacturer. It was hard work forming windshields for motor bikes and plastic parts on pickup trucks and still not exactly what Khu wanted to be doing.

After saving enough money, Khu and his family decided it was time to open a store like the one he worked at in Louisiana. Salweena Khu scoured the Internet for rules and regulations and ordered inventory. Business grew steadily and for a couple of years all the earnings went back into the store.

It was always the Khus' intention to open a restaurant, too. They had planned for an open space in the strip mall where their first store is located, but it turned out the space required $100,000 to remodel. The strip mall on Northwest Radial had an open space that was previously an Ethiopian restaurant.

The updates there were fewer, and they cut costs by doing many of them themselves. Khu's wife selected the decor. Khu and his brother-in-law installed the carpet.

“I said, 'I have seen (someone put in carpet) but I didn't do that by myself. He told me that he saw on YouTube. OK. So we started doing it,” Khu said, laughing.

Parde said refugees can find a niche in opening restaurants and grocery stores that offer products from their home countries. Through them, she said, they fill the special needs of their communities.

At K'Nyaw Poe Asian Market, for example, Khu offers snacks common in Myanmar and Thailand. He gets new shipments from there about every week. New vegetables arrives twice a week.

The store has grown from three standard display shelves to an entire store, complete with freezer and refrigerator space and a section with cleaning and home products.

Khu, 46, said the road to owning small businesses has come with struggles, many of which stem from coming to a country without knowing the language, customs and culture. But he faces the same challenges as other Americans, including from keeping up with the schedules of his kids, ages, 14, 13 and 7.

Khu, who continues to work part time as a case manager at Lutheran Family Services and is following his true passion of ministry by being ordained next month, said problems remain in finding work for everyone within his community and in other refugee communities. Many older refugees have an especially difficult time learning English and adjusting to American culture.

But, the majority of the people in his community are trying, he said. “We are here and it's a real opportunity — a land of opportunity to live our life, to pursue the American dream.”

Today Khu doesn't consider himself a refugee. He's an American who owns small businesses, just like many other Americans.

“I feel like a family, you know, not a guest or not a stranger,” he said.

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