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How immigrant entrepreneurs are revitalizing Dayton

Mirza Mirza and dozens of other Ahiska Turk families have helped revitalize Old North Dayton. (Photo by Stephen Starr)

Immigrant businesses like Grey Wolf Transportation are driving population growth and filling critical workforce gaps in Dayton.


By Stephen Starr, Elevate Dayton


July 20, 2022


Driving through Old North Dayton, the promise and challenges facing the city are on show for all to see. Old warehouses sit alongside damaged trees—scars of the Memorial Day tornadoes of 2019—and colorful new street paintings speak to the neighborhood’s eclectic history and diverse community.


It’s here that, over a decade ago, Mirza Mirza and dozens of other Ahiska Turk families moved in, renovating old homes and establishing new businesses that have since helped revitalize this historic part of Dayton.


Mirza came to Dayton in 2010 after spending several years in Oakland, California, where he studied pharmacy at college and worked part time as a janitor. Before Oakland, home for Mirza was the Krasnodar area of southwest Russia.


In the 2000s, he was part of a U.S. government refugee program that resettled thousands of Ahiska Turks living in Russia to Dayton and other cities around the country. But it was in Dayton that the community especially thrived, drawing members of the community across the US – people such as Mirza – here.


“There was cheap housing and we had family connections here,” he says.


With the Ahiska Turk community building a burgeoning transportation industry out of Old North Dayton, Mirza’s first job was as a truck dispatcher—coordinating truck drivers with freight to be shipped around the country. Later, he bought and drove his own truck, but that took him from coast to coast and away from his growing family. So, in 2018 he established a car service, working in particular with health insurance companies to transport clients to and from medical appointments around the Dayton area.


“Since then, we have become one of the biggest transportation companies in the state,” he says of his company, Grey Wolf Transportation.

Dayton has a history of welcoming immigrants. In 2017, it became the first city in America to achieve “Welcoming City” status for its efforts supporting refugees and immigrants.


The accolade came largely from work carried out by Welcome Dayton, an organization founded in 2011 by local community members and the City of Dayton to help counter housing discrimination that some immigrants were experiencing at the time.


Those efforts slowed down during the pandemic, and, after organization reboot, has been focused on forging new ties with immigrants around the city. Primarily that’s taken the form of adding a staff of community engagement specialists who are going out into neighborhoods and connecting immigrant business owners with community neighborhood associations.


“Our job is to get immigrants and refugees more connected to their neighborhoods, and also to city resources so that they know how the city can help,” says Jeannette Horwitz of Welcome Dayton. In recent weeks and months, the organization has held events marking World Refugee Day and participated in grand openings for immigrant-owned businesses, such as an African food store in Old North Dayton.


Horwitz says Welcome Dayton is set to restart an initiative called the ‘New American Workforce Roundtables’ for the first time since before the pandemic that would connect local area employers with immigrants and refugees.


“My colleagues have also been looking at immigrant-owned businesses and gone and introduced themselves, just to say ‘Hey, we’re here, this is how we can help you,’” she says.


Immigrants make up around 5 percent of Montgomery County’s 532,000 population, according to a study by the New American Economy, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants rights. Around 41 percent of immigrants in Montgomery County come from Asia, 20 percent from Europe, 18 percent from Central America and the Caribbean and the remainder from Africa and South America.


With Dayton’s population—and tax base—struggling to grow for decades, immigrant entrepreneurs are stepping in to help fill the gap. According to the New American Economy study, immigrants contributed $1.9 billion to Montgomery County’s economy in 2019, with more than $75 million paid in state and local taxes.


The report also estimates “that immigrants living in the county had helped create or preserve 1,200 manufacturing jobs that would have otherwise vanished or moved elsewhere by 2019.”


It cites similar positives in the entrepreneurial field, estimating that there are 1,100 foreign born entrepreneurs generating close to $40 million in business income in Montgomery County. “Despite making up 4.8 percent of the population, immigrants make up 7.1 percent of the business owners in the county in 2019,” the authors wrote.


And people such as Mirza and his transportation company are playing a key role in that.


“We have 72 vehicles and employ, give or take, 100 people,” Mirza says. “We transport 1,500 to 2,000 people every day.”


“Our job is to get immigrants and refugees more connected to their neighborhoods, and also to City resources so that they know how the City can help.”—Jeannette Horwitz, Welcome Dayton


Life in Dayton hasn’t all been rosy for the Ahiska Turk community, however. Situated at the intersection of the I-70 and I-75—two major transport routes that run from Canada to Florida and New Jersey to Utah—Dayton proved a perfect location to establish a freight businesses. But the Memorial Day tornadoes of May 2019 smashed their way through Old North Dayton, destroying warehouses, trucks and other properties owned by Ahiska Turks.


“After the tornadoes hit, I left the business,” says Ruslan Kilich, whose family runs SAR Express, a trucking company that operates seven semi-trucks. Eight trucks and seven trailers at the company site were damaged by a tornado that slammed through Old North Dayton on May 27, 2019. Since then, Kilich has left the transportation world and now works as a nurse.


Ruslan Kilich's family-run truck logistics company suffered massive infrastructural damage in the tornado. (Photo by Stephen Starr)


These days, the rising gas prices that are hitting the pockets of all Americans are affecting those in the transportation industry particularly hard. Filling a single semi-truck with diesel costs around $1,200 and the cost keeps going up. Insurance costs have also increased, while drivers have been extremely hard to find, says Mirza.


But dealing with adversity is nothing new for the community.


Also known as Meskhetian Turks, the Ahiska Turk community originates from a part of the former Soviet Union that bordered eastern Turkey. In 1944, the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, deported close to 100,000 members of the community living in a Georgian region abutting the Turkish border to the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere inside train cattle wagons without adequate food, clothing or water. Many died en route.


The community lived there in exile for decades until suffering a pogrom of violent riots during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, when the Ahiskans fled again, this time largely to Ukraine and southwestern Russia. The U.S. government opened its refugee resettlement program to Ahiska Turks living in the Krasnodar region of Russia in the 2000s that saw about 13,000 emigrate to America. Today, around 2,500 Ahiska Turks are thought to reside in the Dayton area.


Since starting the car transportation service four years ago, Mirza has sought to pivot into new business directions, such as importing car tires from Turkey. In April, he is opening a new vehicle repair shop in Old North Dayton.


“We service about 15 to 20 vehicles a day [at the car repair shop]. We’re just nailing it down,” he says.


These success stories have made Dayton increasingly attractive for Ahiska Turks in other parts of the country, and more are moving here all the time, says Mirza. That’s a positive development considering immigrants in Dayton comprise just 4.6% of the region’s population compared to 13.7% nationally. The broader Dayton community seems to agree: According to a Dayton Survey Dashboard conducted by the City of Dayton last year, 70 percent of people surveyed had a positive view of immigrants, up 13 points from 2019.


But success in the business world doesn’t happen overnight, and Mirza advises immigrants looking to launch businesses to start at the bottom and work their way up.


“Whatever you do, you have to do it with passion,” he says. “Put your sweat into it; be honest.”

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