By Matthew Walsh
The flashing neon lights of restaurants and grocery stores are a common sight on 27th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska — one of the most diverse culinary areas in the city. The streets are lined with Vietnamese restaurants, taco trucks and Middle Eastern markets.
Many of these stores are owned by immigrants and refugees who settled in the city to find a better life.
While some Americans think refugees and immigrants are a drain to society, statistics show that immigrants are twice more likely to start small businesses than native-born Americans. These entrepreneurs contribute to the tax base and provide jobs.
Arkan Abood is no stranger to the small business scene in Lincoln; he has owned three stores since moving to Nebraska in 2004. The struggles he faced in his native Iraq and in the U.S. speak volumes about the resilience and drive many immigrant and refugee populations possess.
Abood’s latest venture is Kahramana Market and Bakery, 850 N 27th St., where he spends time in the shop serving customers by preparing the fresh halal meats and fried delicacies in-store.
Under the glow of white florescent lights, a wide range of pre-packaged foods are displayed on counters, metal shelves and in refrigerators. Every spare corner of the store is used for display. Hanging from the ceiling near the checkout counter are animal skins branded with sayings in Arabic, and various perfumes, trinkets and candies line the back wall.
The ambient sounds in the store on a recent day — cheering and whistles — come from a small TV mounted from the ceiling in view of Abood’s perch at the checkout counter. A soccer match between Chelsea and Manchester United was more important than music from the radio.
Abood misses his home country, but wishes there was no violence or poverty. He says that coming to America is one of the most important decisions in his life; one that opened his eyes to how the rest of the world lives.
“My life before the United States I was just a child, even if I come here over 18. Here you feel like you are grown up, here you understand what life is,” he said.
Born in Baghdad in 1978, Abood is no stranger to turmoil. Growing up was difficult in Iraq, which was gripped by the violence of Saddam Hussein’s regime. His family was known in the country for speaking out against the political system and was persecuted for it. Abood’s father and uncles were killed by the regime when he was just 7 years old.
After his father’s death, Abood provided for his sister and mother by working at a stand in the central markets of Baghdad, selling watches, wallets and fruits.
“It was embarrassing for me as a man,” he said. “You have to bring home money to the family during the hard times.”
“That’s how I left, because I knew I had no future. No matter what I’m going to do, no matter what kind of school I’m going to finish,” he said. “You have a mark there, you come from this family, and this family is against the regime. So you cannot be anything there.”
Abood fled to the neighboring country of Jordan to seek refuge. He told the United Nations the stories of political persecution. He said he received a political asylum status and secured permission to come to the United States in 2001.
Abood and his friends always dreamed life in the United States, including the classic story of streets paved in gold. When he arrived, it was different.
“We didn’t know what the life is here,” he said. “We used to watch American movies. We thought like you went to the machine and put your card in and the machine gives you money. We didn’t know that you need accounts or Visas.
“We see a movie and a guy driving a car speeding and everything is fine. So, we thought this is the freedom, this is the fun life. Like we don’t have to pay bills, we don’t have to work. So the first time I was here, I was shocked.”
Abood’s first home was in Seattle, Washington, where he sought the aid of a local mosque after dealing with less than reputable people for housing. The mosque would not allow Abood to sleep in the building because of the political climate after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“No money, no language, no friends and you don’t know no one, what do you do?”
After some phone calls, Abood contacted a family friend in Phoenix, Arizona. There, he worked odd jobs to get by. He tried his hand at housekeeping, operating an ice cream truck, driving a taxi and moving furniture.
Abood soon got tired of the dead-end, low-paying jobs and started to look for better opportunities in the rest of the country.
“I really didn’t like it, because you see some stuff there — you know that this is not America, this is not what you come for.”
Abood saved enough money and decided to move to Lincoln after visiting several times. Two years later in 2006, Abood joined the U.S. Army as a translator. He was deployed to Iraq to help coalition forces navigate the culture and language of the region.
After five years of translating with the Army, he returned to Lincoln and opened Sinbad Restaurant and Aladdin tobacco shop on 27th Street.
“This is the first time I have my own real business,” he said. “You buy a store; you know how to pay your taxes. This is a business.”
Slow but steady
After selling Sinbad and Aladdin, Abood purchased a run-down building across the street, which would later become the site for Kahramana Market and Bakery. Today, business is slow but steady, he said, and he has been able to pay off his house and car, and expand the store’s offerings.
But he already has his eye on his next business venture, which involves selling Kahramana and moving to Tampa, Florida, where he plans to open a business he always dreamed of owning — a hookah bar.
In the meantime, Abood spends his days off fishing. He travels around the state to find the best fishing holes.
“If I’m not working, you can always find me by the lake. If I have time and I know I have someone to cover for me, I always head to Kansas. It’s the best place to fish. I want to go to Ogallala. I want to go there 100 percent, for sure next year.”
Abood has a sense of gratitude for America, for the generosity and the future it gave him.
“I am not coming into life for welfare, or the other things,” he said. “Like most of the people here they think, oh, the country will give you Medicare. I am not here for that I am here for myself to do something.
“And hopefully in the future I will do something after myself and I want do something to this place. This place helped me when I was not even having one penny. I live and grew up here.”