– While a number of Minnesota cities have declared themselves “welcoming” to immigrants and refugees, this southern Minnesota town of nearly 25,000 residents is actually doing something to prove it.

The Austin Area Minority Business Project is seeking immigrant, refugee and minority entrepreneurs who want help starting, sustaining or growing businesses.

The project, which has about 15 clients so far, is a collaboration of the Latino Economic Development Center, Immigration Law Center of Minnesota, Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, Development Corporation of Austin and Ballard Spahr’s pro bono legal team.

The project started in September 2016 with a $165,000 grant from the Legal Services Advisory Committee of Minnesota; Bank of America donated the cash to be used for legal services related to economic development. The project got a second grant, for $200,000, funding its activities through June 2019.

Maylary Apolo said she and her husband, Mordecai, relied heavily on the project to start a small Asian grocery store in Austin. Apolo, who got her teacher’s certificate while living in a refugee camp in Thailand, is fluent in English, Burmese and Karen and has worked as a professional interpreter and led a youth program at Nobles County Integration Collaborative before joining the Immigration Law Center as a legal assistant.

Even so, the complexity of starting a business in the U.S. has proved daunting. She credited Mark Thein, a consultant with the Small Business Development Center in Rochester, with educating her and her husband about sales taxes, business licenses and accounting, and the attorneys at Ballard Spahr with helping them with the complexities of acquiring their store last July.

“We have no background with business. This program is really helpful,” Apolo said. “It helped us start a new life in the U.S.”

Mordecai Apolo lost one leg and mangled the other when he stepped on a land mine as he fled Burma for the refugee camps in Thailand. His prosthesis hurts him if he stands for long periods, his wife said.

“We thought if we have a store, he could do that,” Maylary Apolo said. “It’s doing well.”

Maylary and Mordecai Apolo and their five children all have become U.S. citizens with the help of the Immigration Law Center, said Sara Karki, a staff attorney. She said when refugees and immigrants become citizens they’re more willing to start businesses and engage with the community.

Ronissia Gondao had studied accounting for three years in college in the Central African Republic when she learned that she’d won a lottery for a diversity visa. She quit school, left her family and moved to Austin in 2011.

Gondao said she’s visited a handful of other states since then, but she liked Austin so much that she kept coming back to Minnesota. After working at Quality Pork Processors, Gondao decided to start cutting hair, which is something she had done in Africa to earn money. She rents a chair in Miriam’s Hair Salon but plans to open her own shop soon with the help of the Minority Business Project.

Like Gondao, Herve Idjidina won a diversity visa in his native Benin, a small country in West Africa wedged between Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Fasso and Niger. Idjidina has tapped the Minority Business Project for help planning a child care business that would cater to second- and third-shift workers in Austin — and possibly the rest of the United States.

“There are a lot of big businesses here. Second- and third-shift workers have no child care,” Idjidina said. “We want people to be able to go to work and contribute to the development of the economy.”