In Sudan, Omima Adam was a young civil engineer. In Anchorage, she cooks.
Her food truck at the Mountain View Drive-In is painted a hard-to-miss yellow, parked between a Dominican food stand and an espresso hut. Owned by her husband, Abu Baker Eltaher, Sultan Shawarma sells a small variety of African and Middle Eastern flavors, mostly prepared by Adam. The homemade menus that paper the front of the business advertise shawarma, falafel and kebab.
Inside, the narrow, built-in countertops are crowded with plastic containers of hand-prepared ingredients. The portable grill sizzles with chunks of seasoned chicken and the spicy, sweet aroma of lemon, garlic, hot peppers, fresh vegetables and warm flour tortillas drifts out of the truck window. Adam wraps the meals in tin foil and serves them in paper bags, slipping in a bottle of water or a can of Dr. Pepper, sometimes for free. She has deep, calm brown eyes and wears brightly colored headscarves — turquoise or yellow — wrapped firmly around her face. Sometimes she pins vibrant imitation flowers to her scarf and between the bouquet of smells emanating from her makeshift kitchen and the truck’s eye-catching exterior, the blooms seem fitting.
A native of Africa, she immigrated to Alaska about five years ago in search of safety and opportunity. She married Eltaher and they began building their American dream together. Food from home is a tie to the past and a road to the future.
“We need a better life,” Adam said in thickly accented, careful English, leaning out the little sliding window on the food truck’s right side one chilly December afternoon. “We have two kids; we need a better life for them.”
She hopes to build that life, in part, out of a gravel lot on the corner of North Klevin Street and Mountain View Drive. When Adam came to Alaska, everything was a new beginning. She spoke only Arabic, and studied long hours to learn English. She welcomed her firstborn about a year later, and began learning firsthand how to be a mother. When she and her husband started planning for their children’s future, she began learning how to run a small business. Adam and Eltaher are not alone in their quest.
“Entrepreneurship is a common dream of many new Americans,” said Jessica Kovarik, program director for Catholice Social Services’ Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services. “But there are some pretty significant hurdles.” Last year, RAIS helped welcome 147 new Alaskans, Kovarik said. They come from all over — 16 from Sudan, 24 from Iraq, 24 from the Congo, 55 from Somalia and people from Bhutan, Cuba, Iran, Ethiopia and elsewhere. There are about 15.4 million refugees worldwide, Kovarik said, and 70,000 of them were referred for resettlement in the U.S. last year.
In Alaska, their employment outcomes are positive. Last year, Kovarik said, 80 percent of RAIS clients were employed, and 97 percent retained employment. In general, they’re positions at restaurants or retailers or other service-industry businesses. Kovarik said the RAIS program has strong relationships with employers like Lowe’s, Walmart, Rustic Goat and Providence Alaska Medical Center.
People with entrepreneurial aspirations face a larger set of challenges. Money. Space. Expertise. Kovarik said new Alaskans hoping to go into business for themselves must overcome everything from lack of credit history to lack of work experience in their adopted state. Educational achievements don’t transfer and language barriers can push experienced professionals back into entry-level jobs. Teachers and business owners and engineers go to work as dishwashers and clerks and grocery store stockers. It can be overwhelming and discouraging.
“They come with expectations of America being the land of opportunity, but there is some adjustment that has to happen,” Kovarik said. “They’re basically starting from the beginning.”
Five years after her move from Sudan, Adam still sees America as the land of opportunity.
She faces all of the same hurdles. Her professional education and work experience – a certificate in civil engineering and several years of employment – count for nothing here. She had to start again at the bottom, studying to earn a high school equivalency degree and then the basic certifications necessary to work in her husband’s food truck.
Now, she’s studying for her United States citizenship exam, keeping a test prep book in the food truck and poring over questions about government and history in between orders. There are 100 possible questions she’s working to learn by heart. After that, she’s pondered the idea of going back to college to re-earn her degree. Compared with the troubles back home, though, Adam said the obstacles here are nothing.
“Here, there is safety and you have [the] chance to do better,” she said.
There is no civil war. There are plentiful jobs. The chance to do better is very real. Alaska boasts one of the liveliest business climates in the country, according to the latest Kauffman Index on Entrepreneurship, and the City of Lights and Flowers has cultivated numerous new opportunities over recent years. Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, said the momentum continues to build.
“There’s a much better atmosphere and ecology, if you will, then there was three years ago,” said Popp, who works to encourage growth among Anchorage businesses of all sizes.
One big challenge comes with the community’s age, he said. Alaska is a relatively young state, and stoking the fire of grassroots entrepreneurship has been difficult in years past. It was hard to find startup capital or entrepreneurial support. To build businesses from the ground up, Popp said, you need a strong, well-grounded network.
The same generally holds true within Anchorage’s immigrant community, Kovarik said. It’s a relatively new population, and it’s the older members who tend to find more startup success. Slowly but surely, though, the entrepreneurial spirit has prevailed in all corners of the community. Popp said the 49th State Angel Fund, a venture capital program established several years ago, helped fan the spark into a flame.
“Now there is money out on the street looking for entrepreneurial investment opportunities,” Popp said.
The fund – launched with the help of a $13.2 million federal allocation from State Small Business Credit Initiative — pinpoints “early stage, high-growth businesses showing significant economic potential,” according to its website. When the dust settles, Popp said, initial rounds of investment will have created $26 million in funding for promising local startups and spin-off funds.
But it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all opportunity. The fund requires businesses leverage their investment times 10 over five years, among other milestones for growth.
“They’re not looking for mom-and-pop retail shops,” Popp said.
A startup food truck like Sultan Shawarma must take a different path. Without access to some of the larger capital investment opportunities, Popp said, many new businesses have a much rockier row to hoe. It often comes down to education and passion, but surviving at the earliest stages is one of the biggest tests of entrepreneurial success.
“That’s where they cut their teeth, that’s kind of the fertile ground from which a lot of that kind of activity comes out of,” he said. “Sometimes it’s working two, three jobs; scraping together that investment.”
Adam and her husband are building their business on their dream for their children, traditional knowledge, long hours apart and the income from a full-time government job. While Eltaher works nights at a local post office, Adam raises their young ones and spends nearly every afternoon serving lunches to go from the shawarma truck on Mountain View Drive.
And she has a different view on money – or the lack of it. In Sudan, she said, it was hard to come by and dictated everything; from the food on your table to your children’s education. Here in Anchorage, things are different.
“You can work. You have a job,” Adam said. “If you have a job, it’s ok. You’ll live.”
Some of the recipes are familiar to her; common Sudanese street food she knows from home and a special, secret sesame paste she spreads liberally over most dishes. Others she found online while Googling ideas for the family business. She resisted her husband’s suggestion to sell more American food; hot dogs or burgers or something similarly common. There’s already plenty of that, she said. There are far fewer African eateries.
“I do something different,” she said, deftly flipping strips of succulent chicken across the surface of her steaming grill. “I hope the people like it.”
One day, she said, she hopes to open her own restaurant. The little food truck is just the first step.
“We hope this business goes very well for us,” Adam said.
This summer, she’d like to set up a few tables and benches in the parking lot outside – maybe that could help draw more people; entice them to sit down and stay a while; build her family’s brand. As it currently stands, she said, brick-and-mortar storefronts are much too expensive.
Popp chalks it up to almost non-existent unemployment numbers and the scarcity of available land within the Anchorage bowl. The community’s robust business climate and limited geography combine to make most commercial real estate prohibitively costly for many small startups. Poorly planned developments from decades past don’t help, either.
“The sins of the 70s and the sins of the 80s are kind of haunting us,” Popp said.
For now, Adam and Eltaher keep costs to a minimum by running their business at the neighborhood drive-in, land owned and leased by the Anchorage Community Land Trust. There’s electricity there, and good visibility, and several thousand people living within a 10-block radius. She’s hopeful she and her husband made the right choice.
The road to success has its highs and lows. So far, she said, business has been slow. Some curious customers are drawn in off the street; others are members of Anchorage’s immigrant community, looking for a flavor from home. Adam said she was grateful for their support. The tightly knit network of friends and family helps keep her business afloat.
That’s the way it often is, Popp said; in those scary early days, many entrepreneurs rely on “friends, families and fools.” It also comes down to a business’s tolerance for risk, he said. Adam and Eltaher – who left behind everything they once knew, settled down halfway around the world, learned a new language and started new lives – have faced risk many times. They work through it and, somehow, they survive.
Inside the food truck, a wrinkled dollar bill is carefully smoothed out and taped to the wall above the grill. It’s the first dollar the business ever earned, Adam said. A friend told them to fix it to the wall for good luck. She’s unsure whether the old wives’ tale has held true.
“I don’t know — we try,” Adam said simply. Eventually, she wants to save enough money to travel back to Sudan and introduce her two children to the family she left behind, she said. She wants to share her food with a wider audience and take her business to the next level. Mountain View, one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the country, seemed like the perfect place to do that.
Her family food truck is across the street from an Asian market and down the block from a Samoan church, a Polynesian restaurant, a German restaurant and a Hispanic cultural center. Sudanese food should fit right in, Adam said. Popp has a broader perspective on the role of cultural diversity within Anchorage’s economy.
“It’s an incredible asset to our city,” he said. “We’re a nation of immigrants.”
The president of the economic development corporation said immigrants bring “invaluable energy” and ironclad resiliency to the community’s workforce, leveraging opportunity and riding out times of difficulty and building business along the way. It happens all over town; from a trendy Turnagain restaurant to big box stores to the yellow food truck on Mountain View Drive.
On a late December afternoon, after the last traces of sunlight left the sky, the orange glow from the drive-up window at Sultan Shawarma was like an oasis of warmth in the snow-covered corner parking lot. Adam sat next to a space heater inside, reading her citizenship test prep book and watching the cars and people make their way down the dark, busy street.
Nobody pulled up to her window. Still, she’ll come back to open the stand the next day, and the day after that, because when she unlocks the back door of the truck it’s like she’s unlocking the possibility of a better life for her family.
“Here is good for us: Even if you suffer in the beginning, it’s good,” she said. “You can do it.”
This story is part of an eight-part series sponsored by the Anchorage Community Land Trust. Click here for more information.
Categories: Working in Mt. View