Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County semifinalist for $1 million grant

Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County is excited to announce that it is one of 20 semifinalists for the Opportunity Challenge grant: $1 Million to Uplift Immigrant Communities.

The Opportunity Challenge grant, through a joint grantmaking initiative of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund and the Tarsadia Foundation, launched in March in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. As two funders committed to unlocking potential for all immigrants and refugees, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund and the Tarsadia Foundation seek solutions to support the success of immigrants and refugees in low-wage jobs—and their communities—across the U.S.

Economic mobility is not solely a function of a person’s education, skills, or networks. Immigrants and refugees encounter significant roadblocks outside the workplace: lack of access to childcare, transportation, and healthcare, among others.

The Opportunity Challenge aims to surface impactful, community-led solutions to the obstacles that make it difficult for immigrants and refugees to achieve their goals. It also seeks to elevate the efforts of adjacent organizations working in social services, health care, racial justice, and more, which are filling gaps in much-needed support for immigrants and refugees.

JFS applied for the Opportunity Challenge to support and expand its Micro Enterprise Development (MED) program, which empowers refugees and other immigrant groups to create economic opportunities for themselves by starting or expanding a small business. The program provides training and technical assistance, micro-lending, credit building, consulting services, and marketing support.

Although the MED program is only a few years old, supporting immigrants and refugees is not a new endeavor for JFS of Washtenaw County. For the past 25 years, JFS has provided a diverse array of services for refugees and others who are the most vulnerable in the community. JFS has built a community of professionals, volunteers, and other supporters so that arriving refugees can feel that they are part of a family and can receive the help they need in one place.

Over a third of the refugees that JFS has resettled have maintained businesses or other entrepreneurial activities overseas or possessed a professional skill amenable to self-employment. Entrepreneurship here in the U.S. offers them flexibility, independence, and the opportunity to share their culture—and their unique skills—with their host community.

Fostering entrepreneurship opportunities among immigrants and refugees benefits not only them and their families, but also the wider host community. An investment in immigrant entrepreneurship creates job growth and prosperity, and research shows that urban crime rates are lower in areas with increased settlement by immigrants.

In the past few years, the 91 refugees who have enrolled in the MED program through JFS of Washtenaw County program have received 872 hours of training and $39,550 in loans. They have improved their credit scores by an average of 204 points.

Another important outcome of the program has been an increased sense of belonging, confidence, and independence among the refugee entrepreneurs and their families. For example, one participant was an underemployed single mother. The MED program supported her in launching her own business. Staff provided her with training, a credit-building loan, and marketing support. In addition, through other supportive services, a JFS staff member sold her products for her at local farmers and artisans markets when she was not able to attend due to work or child care responsibilities. At the end of the winter market season, JFS staff had sold more than $100 worth of her products. While this might not sound like a significant sum to everyone, it made a big difference to this client. “Now I can buy a Christmas gift for my son,” she said.

In the next few years of implementing this program, JFS hopes to make this service available to a greater number of immigrants. Broadening access to entrepreneurial opportunities would increase the diversity of services and products available to the local community and elevate the level of financial knowledge and security among participants.

“We are honored to be one of the 20 semifinalists out of the 470 organizations who applied for the Opportunity Challenge grant,” said Dr. Shadin Atiyeh, Employment and Economic Empowerment Programs Director at JFS of Washtenaw County. “We are very hopeful that we will be one of the organizations that WES Mariam Assefa Fund and the Tarsadia Foundation assists with a grant. We are committed to continuing to support refugees and immigrants in their pursuit of success and financial independence.”