Immigrants find warm reception, many opportunities for success in Bellingham

Dan Hiestand
    Mohammad Malayeri’s business ventures have taken him and his family all over the planet.
    Whether it was running a transportation company in Iran, a Greek restaurant in Holland or selling Persian rugs in Bellingham, the Iranian-born Malayeri has dabbled in a variety of business arenas in a variety of different cultures.
    Since starting his Bellingham-based business, Authentic Rug Gallery, about six years ago, Malayeri’s company has done well, he said. He attributes much of his success to the help he received from local residents.
    “In some cases, as a foreigner, we might have a little bit more help than (local citizens),” he said. “Sometimes, people would go out of their way to help get things going. That was a plus.”
    While business has been good, Malayeri said his most valuable commodity has been the people he has met along the way.
    “I’ve made a lot of good friends in this city, which to me, is more valuable than the business part of it,” he said.
    Bellingham has a sizeable community of businesses run by people who were not born in this country. With these backgrounds come stories filled with colorful details and fascinating insight on life and business — insight only an individual from a different culture could provide.

Challenges and differences
    Ukrainian-born Helen Shvydkova has more than 20 years of experience in cosmetology and dermatology, as well as an educational background in pharmacology and chemical science.
    Earlier this year, she opened Northwest Cosmederma, a skin-care spa, in Bellingham on Northwest Avenue. Shvydkova, 42, also operates Helen’s Design Hair, a mobile business providing haircuts, styling, perms, color, manicures and pedicures to people in their homes. Her husband, Yuriy, owns Northwest Shoe Repair, a business in the same building.
    For her, breaking into the industry in Bellingham has been a fairly easy undertaking — mostly because of her background in business and her trade in particular.
    “I know what I’m doing. I am an outgoing person, and I am professional,” she said. “I’m never shy talking with people. I’m never shy to call people and ask about advice. For me it’s no problem.”
    Despite her slightly broken English, her confidence is evident.
    “I like to help people improve their feelings and moods,” she said. “I like to make people happy with my services because this is my life.”
    For her, one of the biggest differences in doing business between the United States and Ukraine is the cost of insurance. In Ukraine, insurance was not required, while in the U.S., insurance is a major expense.
    “In my country I don’t have insurance. We had never heard about insurance (before leaving Ukraine),” she said. “In my country, people never took advantage of me.”
    She also said people were much more likely to interact at the workplace in Ukraine, compared to the do-your-own-thing U.S. environment.
    “Everybody was like a family (at her former job in Ukraine),” she said. “(We often) had lunch together. Everybody picked out something and had it together.”
    A big difference for Malayeri was the availability of business support in the United States, compared to his home country.
    “In Iran, everything is done with cash. If you don’t have cash from the beginning, no banks and no organization is out there to help you out. If you want to start a business, you have to have the initial cash to start it,” he said. “You have no hope of government help, or any other agencies to come around and help you out or train you.”
    In his opinion, the American business community provides more opportunities for a wider variety of business ideas.
    “Here, if you come up with a new idea and it makes sense, people go out of their way to help you to get it going,” he said. “You might look different, or you might say something different, but it always makes sense to somebody, to some organization.”
    This open-mindedness helped him when he started out, he said.
    “If (an idea) makes sense, the bank will try to help you,” he said. “Your real estate agent will try to help you. The person you want to do the business with will try to help you.”
    Another difference: As in many cultures, Iranian children are oftentimes expected to follow in a parent’s professional footsteps.
    “If your parents are in a certain business, traditionally everybody is expecting you to follow,” he said. “Since we were in the crane business, I had to get a degree in mechanical engineering — even though I wanted to be an archeologist.”
    Cultural differences aside, Shvydkova said the community has been very welcoming.
    “This is a very quiet place, and the people are so nice,” she said.

When Masato Kato came to the United States in 1990 from Japan, he didn’t know the language, so he immediately enrolled at Western Washington University to learn English. With limited business experience and little ability to communicate effectively, he said his first few months were rough — but he expected them to be, and, 16 years later, his business is established and doing well.

Cultural road bumps
    Just two years after owner Masato Kato, 45, arrived in Bellingham in 1990, his family’s restaurant, Miyoshi Japanese Restaurant, opened on the Guide.
    When he arrived, he didn’t speak English — aside from what he learned through some cursory schooling — so he attended Western Washington University to learn the language. Because his father didn’t speak any English, the need for Kato’s language skills was great, especially when the restaurant opened in October of 1992.
    “My father was the third generation of sushi chefs, and my great grandfather started in 1887,” he said. Soon after the restaurant opened, his father — a co-owner — died, leaving the business under Kato’s control.
    With both limited English and business skills, he said he felt that some people did try to take advantage of him early on.
    “Even experienced owners can still have people try to take advantage of your honesty and being nice to people,” he said. “I would say that could happen to anyone.”
    He said employees would occasionally try to take advantage of his newness as an owner, but he has learned a lot since starting. Overall, Bellingham is a good place to work, he said.
    “People seem more family oriented, and people know each other here,” he said. “I would say there are a lot of opportunities (for immigrants to do business).”
    In addition to language barriers, overcoming cultural stereotypes can be just as challenging.
    Malayeri said community members have been very open-minded and welcoming in Bellingham, despite tensions that have deepened between the U.S. and some Middle Eastern countries since Sept. 11, 2001.
    “If we have faced anything, it’s like the problems that any other people face when they start a new business,” he said. “Surprisingly … after 9-11, we got maybe more support. Even from the policeman walking into our business, saying, ‘Hey, are you guys okay? If anyone gives you a hard time, let us know.’”
    Business partners and customers have been very supportive as well.
    “People … they give you the chance, they give you the space to prove yourself,” he said. “They don’t pre-judge you in a majority of the places in this country.”
    Bellingham in particular is a good place to live, Malayeri said.
    “If you do what you say you do, I don’t think you are going to have any problem making it in this town. But you gotta be patient. The quick fix is never going to help you,” he said. “If you come here, you just have to be patient and you have to come here to add to the quality of the city. If you come here to take something away, you won’t make it.”
    “The (development) explosion here is amazing, once you get settled,” Kato said. “People seem more family- oriented, and people know each other here.”
    Malayeri said he is very happy to be in this country, but he knows he can never — and should never — forget where he came from.
    “I’ll always be Iranian,” he said. “You can never, ever forget about your roots. If you forget about your roots, you cannot be a good citizen anywhere.”

An international story

Lida and Mohammad Malayeri

   Mohammad Malayeri, 58, and his wife, Lida, 56, grew up in Tehran, Iran. The couple met in eighth grade after Lida met Mohammad through his five sisters, with whom she was going to school. At the time of their meeting, it was June — during final exams — so Lida would often come to his house to study.
   “I was pretty good in math,” he said. “Whenever they had problems in math or any other subject, they would ask me and I would teach them and that’s how I got to know her. We fell in love, and here we are.”
   After everything was added up, the couple ended up getting married (they recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary), having four kids and becoming Canadian citizens in 1992. In fact, they are dual citizens of both Iran and Canada, although they recently applied for U.S. citizenship and have been living in Bellingham for eight years.
   Their road to this point has been long and winding, however. The couple moved from Iran to Corvallis, Ore., in 1972, where Mohammad attended Oregon State University. He ended up graduating in 1978 from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, and then he moved back to Iran for about seven months.
   Not long after arriving back in that country, the Iranian Revolution occurred.
“We took the last plane out of the country before the revolution,” he said. And so they headed back to Oregon, this time to the University of Portland, where he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
   In 1982, the family moved back to Iran to be with his mother, who was having medical issues. They ended up staying there until 1985, during which time he ran a transportation company in Iran.
   From there, the family left Iran for Holland, where they lived until 1988, and that same year they immigrated to Canada. While they lived in Canada, Mohammad worked as an operations manager for Mazda Canada. In 1992, they became Canadian citizens, and in 1998, they moved to Bellingham.
In addition to Mohammad’s rug business, Lida, too, is running an operation in Bellingham. Earlier this year, Lida bought Bean Blossom Coffee Co., on Washington Street.
   “I love what they have done (with the café),” said Valerie Bakko, a 31-year-old manager at Bean Blossom. She has worked at the shop for the past two-and-a-half years. “They’ve made a lot of nice changes to it. They’ve added more to the menu and done a lot of interior-design improvements.”
   Bakko said the couple has incorporated a few cultural influences into their business, such as offering vegetarian somosas, and the changes they brought to the café have gone over well with customers, she said.
   “The community has accepted them very well,” she said. “It’s more like a family working here.”
   Mohammad said he feels the same.
   “We never think of ourselves as foreigners,” he said. “We think we belong and we are like any other citizen of this country. When we start something or when we want to do something, it never crosses our minds that, ‘we are foreigners.’”



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