Malyna Caim was halfway into a six-hour shift at her store in the Hmong Village Shopping Center, in St. Paul, and she had a problem. Not a single person had come in to look at any of the glittery traditional attire and jewelry she imports from Cambodia.

Mirian Aguilar stood about a dozen miles away, in her shop in the Mercado Central mall on Minneapolis’s Lake Street, sewing facemasks. She knew, however, that they would probably wind up in the same pile of unsold masks she had made weeks before.    

Two miles west of Lake Street, Abdikarim Habibi leaned back on the customers’ chair in his barbershop in Karmel Mall. The chair, as usual, was empty. 

These shops present a snapshot of the thousands of immigrant-owned small businesses across Minnesota, said Jato Chabsi, a community development specialist for African Economic Development Solutions, in St. Paul. Their revenues began plummeting in March after the state announced the stay-at-home order to combat the spread of the virus. Nearly a month after authorities eased restrictions on businesses, they remain in a deep trough. 

Their accounts also reflect broader strains for race/ethnic-minority-owned businesses, according to research published in May by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Some 55 percent of respondents reported that their businesses could survive for less than six months in the current COVID-wracked economic climate. Roughly a third said their businesses could hang on for less than three months.

Among the hardest-hit immigrant-owned retail outlets are the storefronts and stalls that fill up malls like the Hmong Village, Mercado Central, Karmel Mall, Village Market and Riverside Mall. They’re the heartland of the Hmong, Hispanic and East African communities, providing special products and services customers can’t find elsewhere in Minnesota.   

To stay afloat, many of these business owners say they’ve been digging into their savings or swiping their credit cards to pay for basic essentials such as food, rent, mortgage payments and car insurance.  

“No one is coming” 

On that Thursday afternoon, Malyna stared down at her smartphone behind display stands festooned with gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings. There hadn’t been a lot else to do after she opened the shop, stall No. 80, at 11 a.m. 

Since she reopened her store in June, when state authorities eased restrictions on businesses, this sleepy routine has become the norm. Malyna said the grim economic reality she’s now witnessing looks different from any of the other challenges she’s learned to navigate during the 10 years she’s owned the store. 

“No one is coming,” she said. “No one is shopping.”

Before COVID-19, she added, business was good. “People went to parties. They came here for shopping. My jewelry and clothes are mostly for parties. Birthday parties, New Year parties, prom parties.”

Prior to the outbreak, Malyna reported to work almost every day. Now, she doesn’t come on Mondays. Or Tuesdays. Or, sometimes, even Wednesdays. Those days, she’s found, just don’t bring foot traffic into her shop. 

That same dynamic could be spotted all over the Hmong Village Shopping Center, which hosts more than 250 vendors. Two of the shops across from Malyna’s, for instance, were closed. The clothing stores on the other side of the food court revealed just a single person inside: the shopkeeper. So did the shoe shop, the pharmacy, the tax-services office and the cosmetic store.

Na Yang sells men’s suits and women’s dresses at the shopping center. Like Malyna, he hasn’t seen many people walk into his store. “People come, but they don’t buy anything,” he said. “They just walk around.”    

Tong Yang is the owner of a store that sells kitchen utensils at St. Paul’s Hmong Village Shopping Center. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Tong Yang was fixing a small box in his store, No. 249, where he’s been selling kitchen utensils for the past six years. In the initial years of his business endeavor, he said, things were “running pretty good. Every week, the customers were coming, buying a lot of kitchen stuff—bowls, spoons, forks and traditional Hmong items.”   

A few years ago, business started to slow down a little. Then, the arrival of the COVID pandemic sent nonessential businesses like his into hibernation. 

Tong isn’t happy with Governor Tim Walz’s original decision to shut down business operations. “In those weeks, we still had to pay rent,” he said. “They had gone overboard with that. Some people are frustrated.” 

Mirian Aguilar, an immigrant from El Salvador, sews facemasks inher shop in the Mercado Central mall in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Things have been more or less the same at Mercado Central. Mirian, an immigrant from El Salvador, opened her store in January. She sells t-shirts, hats, shorts, scarves and flags. Recently, she started making and selling facemasks.

The store had been open for only two full months when the March stay-at-home order went into effect. Mirian reopened the store mid-June. But she’s been paying the monthly $1,100 rent since January. 

During the two weeks the store has been accessible again, she said, just a handful of customers have come to purchase items. “No money,” she said. “Nothing. It’s terrible.”

Abdikarim, the barber at Karmel Mall, said it no longer feels like his business is located in what’s the largest Somali mall in the U.S. “No one is coming around,” he said. “People are still afraid.”

“I’m using credit cards a lot”

For Malyna, a Cambodian immigrant who’s lived in the U.S. for 11 years, the store is her only source of income to pay her bills and support her three young children. 

“I’m using credit cards to buy food,” she said. “I’m using credit cards to pay for rent. I owe a lot of money right now. Everything is credit cards.” 

Jato, the specialist at the African Economic Development Solutions, said immigrant business owners have either closed down or they’re on the brink of doing so because they aren’t making enough money. “We’re getting calls every day,” he said. 

Jato added that his organization is working to connect entrepreneurs such as Malyna, Mirian and Abdikarim with government relief funds that would help them get through these difficult times. 

But until then, the store owners are left to their own devices. “Money doesn’t come in,” Malyna said. “It only goes out. We pay for rent; we pay for car; we pay for food. It’s very hard. It’s a big problem.”

Malyna then slowly unmasked her face, and returned to studying her cellphone, swiping the screen up and down. Still, there was not a customer in sight. Still, the cash drawer was empty. Maybe her luck would change tomorrow. 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...