COLUMBIA — Esperance Nantore smiled shyly as she accepted a certificate for being June's star employee at Safi Sana, a business in which the majority of workers are refugees.
Nantore, who cleans houses and apartments with the company, earned the award as an employee who consistently works hard.
She came to Columbia from the Democratic Republic of Congo and was the first refugee hired by Safi Sana. Her part-time work supports two households on an income of $800 a month.
Half of her salary each month goes to an elderly woman, also an African refugee, who watches her four children while she works.
Of the remaining $400, she sets aside $200 to cover gas, utilities, rent and car insurance. Food stamps covers groceries.
The remaining $200 is the family of six’s spending money for the month.
Safi Sana, which means “very clean” in Swahili, was founded in January. President Jen Wheeler said the company’s goal is to provide the refugee population of Columbia with a critical need: jobs.
Refugees from Congo, Burma, Iraq, Burundi and Rwanda work for Safi Sana. They are paired with Americans and work together in teams.
The women mostly clean; the men paint. Transportation to and from their jobs is provided.
After the cost of supplies is deducted, the remaining income is split between the two team members.
“I see Safi Sana for most of my employees as extra money on the side or as a place for them to get experience and some money as their first job in America," Wheeler said.
The idea is to give them a start, then let them move on into higher-paid jobs.
“Safi Sana is good," Nantore said. "I like cleaning."
Refugee and Immigration Services of the diocese of Jefferson City has settled about 162 refugees in mid-Missouri so far this fiscal year, Development Coordinator Annie Zellhoefer said.
Unemployed refugees are at a disadvantage in the search for employment because many do not speak English.
“One of the biggest obstacles the refugees have is finding jobs,” said Barry Stoll, vice president of the painting division of Safi Sana. “They want to work, and they want to make a living.”
Before coming to America, Nantore's husband, Noe, was in charge of health clinics in their town, Uvira. They fled in 2004 after civil war erupted and rebels began killing people in their village.
The couple left with their children and made their way south to Burundi, another African country, where they declared themselves refugees. In September 2008, they immigrated to the United States.
Wheeler had wanted to do something to help her refugee friends from her church.
After being laid off from her job with Vangel advertising firm in November 2008, a friend suggested she start a cleaning company to help them.
“It was one of those moments in my life where it was like a light-bulb moment,” Wheeler said. “And I said, 'OK, I’ll do it.' I don’t know how to start a business, but I’m smart enough to be able to figure it out.”
Putting Americans and refugees together has been a successful business strategy, Wheeler said. Not only does it help the refugees learn English, it has also helped lead to many friendships within the group.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie, even though not all of us even speak the same language,” said Esther King, a vice president of Safi Sana. “We’re friends and we enjoy what we do.
"I know that’s unusual since cleaning is manual labor and hard work, but we really do have a good time. Even if it’s like a long day or we have lots to do, we make it fun.”
Nantore and Wheeler have since become close friends as well. Last July, when Nantore’s fourth child was born, she named her daughter Jenny, after Wheeler.