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Tiny store is life-changing for city's Bhutanese refugees

Today's grand opening of a tiny store on Grant Street near Forest Avenue on the city's West Side may go unnoticed by most, but it's life-changing for Kaji Sunwar and the emerging Bhutanese Nepali community in Buffalo.

Just four years after arriving from Nepal, Sunwar is now a proud business owner. And his new store, Sagarmatha Groceries, is a little corner of the city that his countrymen can call their own.

They owe thanks to some enterprising college students and a local company that also got its start as a small business on the West Side.

"My thinking was when I got to America I would do anything -- washing, cleaning, anything," Sunwar said on Friday. "I never thought I'd have a store."

The idea for the store began with the Students in Free Enterprise program at Canisius College.

SIFE, as it's known, is a nonprofit student organization -- with chapters worldwide -- that creates business projects to better local communities.

The Canisius chapter, which has a few dozen students, wanted to work with the refugee population and came up with a student-managed micro-loan program for small-business startups.

Rich Products, which has long been involved with the student organization, liked the idea and backed it with $30,000.

"Over 65 years ago, Rich's began as a small business on the West Side," said Howard Rich, vice president of community relations. "We are thrilled for the opportunity to give back to the community that supported us."

Once the student group got to know those in the refugee community, it quickly became clear that Sunwar would be their first prospective businessman, said Patricia Hutton, a professor of economics and finance at Canisius, who serves as SIFE adviser.

"He's educated, he speaks English fluently and he knows everybody in the community," Hutton said.

Sunwar, 32, was born in Bhutan, a country in South Asia nestled between India and China, where his father was a member of the royal guard and the family lived on the palace grounds.

But when the king's father-in-law found out the family was Christian, they were told to worship at the Buddhist temple or leave the kingdom. They left.

For years, Sunwar was in a refugee camp in Nepal, where he went to school and lived in a 13-by-19-foot tent with his parents, sister and four younger brothers.

His father's construction job helped pay to send Sunwar to college in India, where he earned a master's in business administration. He returned to Nepal and worked as a teacher to help send his brothers to college.

In 2007, Sunwar went to an office of the United Nations refugee agency to apply for resettlement. In May 2008, Sunwar and his entire family were resettled in Buffalo by Catholic Charities.

"I never thought in my life I'd be an American," Sunwar said. "It is amazing."

In fact, Sunwar thought Hutton was kidding him when she discussed the opportunity to open his own business.

But the Canisius student organization -- led by Miguel Lopez, Briana Miller, Brianne Victor and Elena Popova -- helped him write a business plan. Then, they stuck with him through the process -- everything from applying for a city license to buying store shelving.

"Helping someone find their little niche, that was an interest to me," Lopez said. "I wanted Kaji to be that person to help his community grow. He can be an inspiration to other people."

Sunwar opened the doors to the store at 489 Grant St. a couple of weeks ago. As he repays the low-interest loan, that money will be used for more small-business loans to other refugees.

"I can't express my thanks to them," Sunwar said, "They have done a great, great job for me and my community."

Since Sunwar arrived in Buffalo, hundreds more Bhutanese refugees have followed and settled on the West Side.

They often hop a bus to an Asian market in Amherst to get their traditional spices and foods, so the opening of Sunwar's neighborhood store will make it much easier.

The shelves are stocked with specialty products, ranging from chili pickle to hard cheese from Nepal to beaded necklaces made by women in the local Bhutanese Nepali community. Toward the back, there are used books for people to borrow. More than a store, it's a place for the Bhutanese to gather, to socialize.

Sunwar, meanwhile, has a day job, but the rest of his family will pitch in to help run the store. He's hopeful.

"This will work," Sunwar said. "This will be a good business and I can make it."