Ullys Mouity couldn’t find the flavors he remembered from home when he moved to Syracuse.
The city had an African market, but he wanted to introduce the community that welcomed his family to the cuisine he grew up with in the Republic of the Congo.
Mouity saw opening the Taste of Africa as his way to give back to the people who helped his family plant roots in Syracuse. But he, alongside many refugees and immigrants, has benefited the city with much more than a fresh eatery.
His family arrived in Syracuse in 2005 as refugees after they fled a coup in his home country and a civil war that took his father’s life. He and his then-fiancée cooked often with the spices of home in their new city, and a voice at the back of their heads pestered them to start a restaurant.
Metro Syracuse experienced depopulation for decades. The trend shifted between 2000 and 2014 when the area saw a 1.8% population increase, according to a New American Economy report. That included a 42.5% growth in the foreign-born population in the same timeframe.
It’s only fitting that Syracuse’s economy rebounded through the arrival of new Americans, said Dominic Robinson, vice president of economic inclusion for CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity.
“Immigrants and refugees are more likely to start businesses than their peers,” Robinson said. “I think that there’s so many immigrants and refugees that bring with them skills and a desire to succeed in a new place.”
Mouity strived to build a successful business despite setbacks. In 2011, he tried to open an African restaurant in a space that used to house a bakery. He and his wife didn’t know how to navigate zoning, city codes or the other details that made purchasing a business much more complicated than it was in the Congo. Code enforcers shot down their plan, and they lost the space.
But six years later, he “fell in love” with a building — owned by German immigrants before him — and opened Taste of Africa, operating it full time while also working two other jobs.
But Mouity again lost parts of his business in 2020 — thieves broke into the restaurant, taking expensive equipment with them. That happened early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when, like most businesses, Taste of Africa closed so Mouity didn’t earn much income.
He didn’t let the robbery stop him. He partnered with his cousin, got grants from the city and bought new equipment. He even expanded this year and opened a market that sells both American and African foods in a section of the restaurant where people used to dine.
That story’s familiar to Jay Subedi, a Bhutanese immigrant who’s operated several businesses while also sitting on CenterState’s board of directors and running for local office.
Subedi worked at a Subway after he moved to Syracuse 12 years ago, and he snagged a gig as a case manager for a refugee resettlement program.
Like Mouity, Subedit thought Syracuse was missing another flavor: South Asian cuisine.
He opened two grocery stores that sold ethnic foods “to meet the needs of [his] community,” as well as eventually a gas station. By 2017, Subedi decided to focus on helping people he’d noticed needed support through more than his case manager work — supporting elderly immigrants, refugees and people with disabilities. He now manages a healthcare company, TruCare, full time to meet unique needs of these populations.
“A typical American family can hire anybody who speaks their English language, from any temporary agencies,” Subedi said. “In our ethnic groups … that cannot fulfill the needs of our seniors, because they speak a different language, they’re not literate in the American healthcare system, and they have a different way of dress, of speaking … everything is different from the American system.”
Refugee & Immigrant Self-Empowerment offers a care management program for new Americans as well, along with educational and employment resources. Immigrants and refugees make up about 75% of RISE’s own staff, according to Jan-Juba Arway, the nonprofit’s communications and community engagements manager.
RISE could be an integral piece that keeps new Americans in Syracuse long after they immigrate.
“Usually what keeps [new Americans] here is the diversity and many organizations that have services that help them thrive and integrate into the new community,” Arway said.
Mouity notices this diversity. People in Syracuse represent many different countries in Africa, and there are other a few more restaurants serving dishes birthed in the continent.
“The variety … is there and I think some of us are fighting also to give back the same way I’m doing with cooking, and other Africans and refugees are doing in their own field,” he said.
People can find some of these African restaurants, and local chefs selling other ethnic foods, in Salt City Market. The downtown Syracuse food hall opened earlier this year with support from CenterState. Subedi said new American businesses “are booming now.”
Market visitors smell spicy jerk chicken wafting from Erma’s Island, a Jamaican restaurant, and tangy vegetables sautéed at Firecracker Thai Kitchen. But customers might bypass these for the sweet, enthralling scent coming from Cake Bar.
Duyen Nguyen also thought something was missing in typical American delicacies, just as Mouity and Subedi saw a void they could fill with their native country’s cuisine.
So like the flour and sugar she uses in her cakes and pastries — she mixed Vietnamese and American flavors together.
She didn’t expect to become a baker like her mother, but she saw an opportunity to connect her birth country and family with the people and places of Syracuse.
“There’s many flavors [my American friends] never taste before,” Nguyen said. “People in Syracuse want to try my stuff. That made me have a reason to want to do it even more.”
These new Americans cherish the opportunities to continue the work they do and want to return the favor through cultural exchange with their city. These sentiments are shared among immigrants and refugees in the area, according to Mouity.
“We all struggle, but the beauty about this struggle came the opportunity we got coming to America,” he said. “Hopefully the community also are happy to basically see us as refugees trying the best they can to give back to their community.”
CenterState’s Robinson looks forward to an influx of new Americans after COVID-19 and resettlement policies stalled their arrival over the past couple years. His organization, RISE, the flavors of home and Subedi will be waiting to support them.
“I came [to Syracuse] with nothing, just a bag of clothes 12 years ago, and I am here today as a businessman, as a successful man,” Subedi said. “I love it here and I like to help the people who came as me and like to be successful as me.”
Published 10:21 am UTC Jan. 10, 2022 Updated 11:56 am UTC Jan. 10, 2022