Report finds refugees contributing to Minn. economy

Kaw Hai is the lead auto mechanic at SKD Auto Tek.
Kaw Hai is the lead auto mechanic at SKD Auto Tek in St. Paul, here on Oct. 26, 2016. He's a refugee from the Karen State in Burma. Hai says he, his older brother and father first worked at McDonalds when they arrived into the United States.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Just off Rice Street in St. Paul is an auto repair shop called SKD Auto Tek. It's run by two refugee brothers who were born in the Karen state of Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Younger brother Kaw Hai, 31, is the head mechanic.

"For us, we don't work hourly right now because we run our own business," he said. "Sometimes we work really long hours. Some nights I go home at 2 or 3 in the morning."

That kind of dedication may help explain a new report that shows refugees have contributed significantly to the Twin Cities' economy. Among some ethnic groups, refugee men join the labor force at higher rates than U.S.-born men.

As he worked on a car in the SKD garage, Hai explained that he'd started looking for a job as soon as his family arrived in the United States 16 years ago.

"I worked at McDonald's," he said with a laugh, adding that his father and brother worked there as well. "It was the beginning ... step by step. Later, when we know more English, go to another level, better pay."

Soe Doh is the brains behind SKD Auto Tek.
Soe Doh is the brains behind SKD Auto Tek in St. Paul, here on Oct. 26, 2016. The former PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant moved to Minnesota two years ago from California to work with his mechanic brother Kaw Hai.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

His older brother, Soe Doh, is the brains of the business. He's a former accountant in the San Francisco office of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"This is my country," he said. "This is the only country that I am able to have a solid paper that I can look at and say, 'Oh, that's my name. I'm a U.S. citizen.'"

Before the family came to the United States, Soe Doh said, "We were stateless, we don't have a country. We were running from the Burmese government ... To be in this country was a blessing."

Doh counts himself among the lucky ones. Unlike many other refugees, he didn't witness a lot of violence, and was able to focus on getting an education and becoming the professional he is today.

"To say that refugees are not hard at work, you know, you can't," he said. "You can't generalize about refugees, because we have a lot of American people that don't like to work. They know English and don't want to work. It's even worse than being a refugee who doesn't like to work."

A report released recently by the Center for American Progress in Washington and the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York shows that refugee men like the Karen brothers quickly find work, often at a rate exceeding that of U.S.-born men. The report focused on refugees from Somalia, Myanmar, Laos and Bosnia who came to the United States from 1982 to 2014.

Of the four groups, refugees from Myanmar had the most improved wages. For example, recently arrived male refugees earn a median wage of $23,000 per year, but men who have been in the United States for a decade earn more than twice that.

In this election season the refugee story has been distorted, said Clark Biegler, a policy analyst with the Minnesota Budget Project.

"Sometimes the message that gets sent in the media is that they're takers, they're taking too much of services, they're not paying taxes and not always working, but in fact the opposite is true," Biegler said. "This report shows that these folks ... are getting jobs, they're participating in our economy by becoming business owners. They're trying to make a new life."

Her group released a separate report last week, called The State of Working Minnesota 2016. It shows people of color in the state continue to earn lower incomes than white Minnesotans, and that people of color are more likely than white Minnesotans to be unemployed or underemployed.

Eh Tah Khu is co-executive director of the Karen Org. of Minn.
Eh Tah Khu is co-executive director of the Karen Organization of Minnesota in St. Paul. His job is to help refugees get job training, learn English and find their way in Minnesota.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

That's why Eh Tah Khu keeps working to connect employers with refugees. He's the co-executive director of The Karen Organization of Minnesota. When he makes those connections, they pay off.

One factory manager was so happy with some Karen workers that he asked for 100 more, and fast. "He said that the Karen people are hard-working people," Khu said. "They are on time. They follow instructions. And they listen, are respectful."

Khu wants to focus next on academic scholarships and job training for children of refugees. Like many other states, Minnesota will face a labor shortage as baby boomers retire, opening up more opportunities for refugees and immigrants.

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