SIOUX FALLS | Hakim Kane's American dream was born in the dust and poverty of his East African experience.

It sprang from the scorched earth west of South Sudan's capital of Juba, near a community called Mundri, in the hardscrabble markets where vendors lined up each day to sell bread they had baked or fish they had caught or clothing they had pieced together with ancient sewing machines.

There in the harshest of life's classrooms — in a place rife with yellow fever and malaria, with diseased drinking water and unending hunger — young Hakim watched the destitute trying to eke out a subsistence by working the foot pedals on a worn-out Singer.

And he learned.

Decades later, this African tribesman is 14 years removed from a refugee existence in Egypt, married here in America with four children and determined to turn his Third World experience into a career.

A few weeks ago, a friend of his named Emmanuel Tor set Kane up in a side room at his grocery store at Sixth Street and West Avenue. There the 58-year-old tailor now hems pants for $5, puts in or replaces a zipper for $10, and custom makes a shirt for $25. To celebrate this new chapter in his life, he is staging an open house Saturday.

"This is the business I try best to do," he told the Argus Leader ( ) as he sat near a blue Remington sewing machine in his shop. "I need to feed my family, so I try."

In the cultural melting pot that is modern-day Sioux Falls, many immigrants and refugees are trying to find their way in the business world on instincts and skills honed on other continents.

Roland Schwab, resettlement coordinator for Lutheran Social Services, said his agency offers guidance and advice but has no structured program to assist them.

"Most of them do it on their own," Schwab said. "Word of mouth, saving up money, seeing what a bank will give them and starting out small ... that's what I see."


District director John Brown with the Small Business Administration said his agency wants to work with the refugee and immigrant communities and has done some of that with assistance from organizations such as the Multi-Cultural Center.

But refugee entrepreneurs bring their own unique challenges to the table, Brown said, including differences in language, culture, and business models and practices.

"Trust of government is a big one, too," he said. "That is a fairly high hurdle to get over. In a lot of cases, these refugees and immigrants are coming from countries where you didn't really trust the government at all.

"So one of the things we've found is, we're trying to go back to the drawing board on some of these things to see how we can build the trust necessary so we can provide our services."


Hakim Kane's tailoring business model on the other side of the world was a $25 dollar sewing machine he bought with money he saved while serving nine years with the Sudanese Army during peacetime. That was part of his assignment in the military, teaching others how to sew. And he did the same thing for a number of years as a refugee in Egypt as well.

In East Africa, his wages might be food. They might be clothing. Many had little or nothing to give him. "What one guy pay me, I can't make change," Hakim recalled. "It was less than a penny."

Obviously, the possibilities are greater in Sioux Falls. Some of the African-style clothing he has produced hangs on the walls of his shop. He has two machines with which to work. And he has a passion for the vocation that perhaps was less obvious in the many years he worked at meatpacking plants in Sioux Falls and in Worthington, Minn.

Ten years ago, when Kane started talking about operating his own tailor shop some day, his Japanese-born wife, Izume, wondered where all this talk was going. They had to put food on the table for their children and a roof over their heads. They had family members back in Africa to support, too.

"For me, he talked about this, and it was his dream, and he never changed his passion," she said. "For me to think about it, I thought, 'No, it's just a dream.'

"But I changed my thinking. He always thinks about South Sudan, about helping the people. His thinking is global. And we don't know anything about business. But his is a very pure desire. The purpose of this business is, we want to make God happy."

They want to make some money, too, of course. The Kanes are people of faith; he does some pastor work at Falls Community Church. But he doesn't get paid for that, and he needs to support his family.

Schwab and Brown can't predict how successful he might be.

"Just like any business, they're going to have a difficult time making a go of it," Schwab said. "New businesses start up, and some don't make it because of poor general business sense. But by word of mouth in their own communities, some do ... relatively well. They can at least support their families."

That is their hope and their prayer, the Kanes say. At this point, they don't have much else.

"I have hope," Hakim Kane said. "You come back in 10 years.You see where we are then."

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