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Melanie, the daughter of the owners of Bodega Mi Sueno, said the store is a gathering place for the Cuban community. She said they strive to find products and foods from their home for the community to recognize. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

Editor’s note: This package of photographs, podcast (click above to listen), story and infographic (below) are the final project of Insider Louisville’s summer intern.

In Louisville, a large portion of the economy and culture has stemmed from a growing immigrant population.

The city of Louisville has worked to create a welcoming environment for these individuals who may run businesses and enterprises to help them flourish, says Bryan Warren, director of the Office for Globalization.

A lot goes into being a “welcoming” city, he says.

“It really reaches beyond just saying hello and welcome to my community,” Warren said. “It’s actually about looking at the systems and the policies and the resources we have in place to be sure when someone does land on the ground here that they have access to health care, to schools, to career pathways that they have a community that truly welcomes them and wants to know about their culture and is willing to share with them their heritage.”

One program within the Office for Globalization is the Welcome Academy. Warren described it as a six-month project in which immigrants or refugees can learn about the functions of city government and other organizations within the city such as nonprofits or businesses. Through the program, Warren said people are able to make “soft networks” to connect them with the resources they need.

Each contribution from an immigrant and refugee adds to the city’s diversity of culture and paves the way for future immigrants and refugees, Warren says.

The market manager

Ibrahim Ahmed works as a manager at the World Food Market inside the Somali Mall International. He said the mall offers a one-stop shop to fulfill all of the communities’ needs from the a market, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a barber shop and mosque.

Ibrahim Ahmed, manager of the World Food Market, assists a customer. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

When he first immigrated to the United States, Ahmed said he chose to come to Louisville because he heard from friends it was a welcoming city with a large Somali and African community.

“They had a community that was a bit united,” Ahmed said.

The mall provides jobs to the community and Ahmed said it keeps people occupied so they don’t fall into bad habits. The spot is also something recognizable for people who are so far from home. In the market, they can find foods they know and need and in the restaurant, they can find dishes familiar to them.

“When you come to America, everything is different,” Ahmed said. “It’s been a home away from home and we are so honored to be here.”   

Additionally, Ahmed said the mall dispels negative stereotypes about the community. He said groups from schools or churches frequently visit and can see how they live, how they pray and start to understand their culture better.

The magazine publisher

Luis David Fuentes hold his publication, El Kentubano, in his office. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

Luis David Fuentes immigrated to Kentucky 20 years ago and is the founder and editor of El Kentubano, a magazine which initially provided information to the growing Cuban community in Louisville but has expanded to cover the entire Hispanic community.

Fuentes said the magazine is a free service and helps Cubans integrate into their new environment. He reflected on how different his life is in Kentucky in comparison to Cuba and said he had to learn everything over again.

“It is like to be born again,” Fuentes said.

The entrepreneur

Mehdi Yazdanpanah and his wife moved to Louisville and went on to start Nauga Needles. | Photo by Rebekah Alvey

Mehdi Yazdanpanah immigrated to Louisville from Iran with his wife to earn a master’s degree from the University of Louisville. Originally, he said the location was random, but they have decided to stay in the area because of the cost of living.

Naturally, Yazdanpanah said immigrants are motivated entrepreneurs. He said the ability to uproot your life and relocate in a new country is brave and daring. This came to his mind when he had to make the decision between joining an established company or creating his own.

He decided to start his own business, NaugaNeedles, in 2007. The business is based on research he did at UofL, involving creating a microneedle in a room-temperature setting.

Yazdanpanah said Louisville has been incredibly welcoming and provided a great place to host the business.

“People smile at you,” Yazdanpanah said.

As an immigrant he noticed that people don’t look down on him or treat him differently. Instead, he said, people treat him with respect and admiration, particularly because of his business.

New barriers to entry

The entirety of the United States doesn’t always reflect the same welcoming qualities as Louisville. Ahmed immigrated to the United States through the lottery program. He explained a select number of people are randomly selected for permanent residence in whichever city they want.

Ahmed said this program is at risk of being shut down along with several other programs that assist immigrants and refugees. His home country, Somalia, was also included in the travel ban, which was an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. The ban included seven different countries with Muslim-majority populations.

With the new barriers, Ahmed said he has heard stories of families being separated because certain members could not get a visa in time.

Iran is also included on the travel ban. Yazdanpanah said the ban has impacted the number of talented and intelligent Iranians from moving to the U.S. for further education or research. He explained in Iran it is nearly impossible to start your own business without a well-connected family. In the U.S., he was able to conduct research and start his own business with his work.

Yazdanpanah said he has a nephew with enormous potential who he could see doing even more than himself. However, because of the ban and travel barriers, his nephew is less likely to be mentored by professors or able to get an education in the U.S., he said.

Fuentes has a different perspective on the recent changes to immigration laws. He said Cubans are in a unique situation and have their own laws. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy allowed Cubans migrating by foot to stay in the U.S. legally while those arriving by sea were not.

The policy was in place for decades before former President Barack Obama repealed it shortly before leaving office. Fuentes said without the policy it is more difficult for Cubans to arrive and live in the U.S., which presents personal challenges as well as challenges for families.

However, he said he refuses to complain.

Although many people approach him from the Cuban community, asking to stage a protest or something similar, Fuentes has always denied the requests.

While he said he understands the difficulties new policies place on his community, he said he trusts the decisions were made in a balanced way feels blessed to be in the U.S. where there are several personal freedoms he didn’t have in Cuba.

“I am a proud Cuban-American,” Fuentes said.

Rebekah Alvey
    Louisville native, Alvey is currently pursuing a journalism and Arabic major at Western Kentucky University. In the fall she will be returning to the College Heights Herald as News Editor and previously covered administration and academics on campus. She spent the past five months studying in Aarhus, Denmark, at the Danish School of Media and Journalism where she covered the European Union, abortion laws and world politics. While she loved traveling around Europe for a semester, she is excited to be back and reporting in Louisville.


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