Written by Raluca Besliu

Kyaw Swar Oo, a Burmese refugee, who arrived in the United States (U.S.) in 2004, is a man living his dream. In October 2013, he opened his own business, the Burmese Asian Market, the first Burmese store in Cleveland. At the moment, Oo is still growing his initiative and not quite able to support himself entirely from the Market. Oo continues to work daily as a sushi chef from 7:30am until 11:30am, visits the Burmese Asian Market until 12:30pm, where his wife works as the shopkeeper, and spends the rest of his day as an Uber driver until 8 or 9pm, which gives him an opportunity to meet interesting new people as well as tell them about his store. He spends his only day off, Saturday, with his wife and two-year-old daughter.


After obtaining political asylum in 2004 for his activist work for democracy and against the military junta in Burma, his home country, Oo lived and worked in sushi bars in New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego. He moved to Cleveland in 2011, where he became a franchisee for AFC Sushi located in a Giant Eagle. While earning well at his job, Oo dreamt of opening his own business. He was determined to fulfil the timeline that he had set out for himself in his early 20s: he would be an employee in his 20s, in order to acquire the knowledge, skills, and vision needed to be an entrepreneur, open his own business in his early 30s, and grow it and make it successful in his mid- and late 30s. He tirelessly worked to make his dream come true. Soon after moving to Cleveland, he sold his AFC Sushi franchisee’ share, in order to open the Burmese Asian Market in Lakewood, a Cleveland neighborhood with a large Burmese community. According to Eileen Wilson from Building Hope in the City, an organization which welcomes and partners with refugees and immigrants, there are currently around 1,500 Burmese in Cleveland, with 80 percent living in Lakewood.

Building the business wasn’t an easy process for Oo. It took him a full year between finding an adequate space to rent and opening the store in October 2013, mostly due to the need to obtain multiple City Hall Permits. He had to learn everything from scratch: from architectural planning and purchasing and installing adequate shelves to buying equipment, designing the store’s logo and marketing it. He was rejected multiple times for the licenses that he had applied for. While many people would be discouraged, Oo wasn’t. He had a plan and he was determined to succeed, no matter the obstacles.

The Burmese entrepreneur had a limited budget for his project, generated mainly by selling his shares at the AFC Shushi. Because of the startup nature of his business, Oo couldn’t get any loans that could help him in the process. Instead, to sustain himself and his project, he worked as a chief at another sushi bar, while remaining a franchisee at another sushi stand.

He was also creative on how he acquired the equipment needed to open the store. He purchased the freezers and coolers needed for the store on Craigslist, while getting used shelves from a department store. Oo also had to be creative in obtaining the food supplies for his store. Initially, he got them from a Burmese market in Akron, a city situated close to Cleveland, with a considerable Burmese population, as well as from a Chinese market. These were extremely expensive however and he reached his already restricted budgetary limits.

Oo wasn’t sure what to do. He wasn’t eligible for a bank loan, even though he had finally found two affordable place to get the food from in Chicago, at the Chicago Burmese and Chinese Warehouses. It was a fortuitous moment for Oo to encounter a representative from the Economic Community Development Institute (ECDI), a Columbus-based organization providing microcredit as well as financial literacy and microenterprise development training courses to local and immigrant business owners. The ECDI representative was impressed with his initiative and, after connecting him with Neighborhood Housing Services to address some unresolved credit issues and develop a solid financial plan, provided him a much needed loan.

With the loan, Oo was able to purchase food supplies from the abovementioned Chicago Warehouses as well as started to import multiple of them from Thailand, where they were much less expensive. His store carries traditional Burmese and Asian food and clothing as well as U.S. products to appeal to a broader customer base.

While the Market was originally opened with the Burmese community in mind, Oo has been pleasantly surprised by the fact that many of the customers are U.S. citizens. The latter are drawn either by a preexisting interest in Asian culture and cuisine, visiting the store’s website, which is promoted on the Lakewood neighborhood’s webpage, or by sheer curiosity to explore the store, while passing it by.

The Burmese entrepreneur’s current goals are to make the Market flourish as well as open the first Burmese restaurant in Cleveland. However, his biggest life objective is to earn enough money to be able to offer his daughter a good life and access to quality education, so that she can pursue any profession she wants as an adult.

Oo feels fully integrated in the U.S. society and embraces its core values. He mostly appreciates the respect for laws and rules and the fact that everyone has the opportunity to be successful through hard work.

Global Great Lakes Network

Immigrant entrepreneurs and immigrant-owned small businesses in the region are invited to enter a contest offering a $1,000 prize for the best success story describing their experience.

Called “A Day in the Life of an Immigrant Entrepreneur,” the contest is sponsored by the Global Great Lakes Network (globalgl.org), a regional initiative bringing together organizations working to tap into the economic opportunities created by immigrants, in collaboration with New America Media (www.newamericamedia.org), the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 3,000 ethnic news organizations.



Raluca Besliu is a staff member at IPM. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is originally from Romania. Ms. Besliu’s interests are in refugee and human rights issues, global politics, peace and post-conflict reconstruction.