One in six Fayette County residents is from a foreign country. These immigrants come from all over the world for an education, or a job or to join their families here. And they are making Lexington home in growing numbers, according to city officials.
“There are more and more immigrants coming to the Fayette County area every day,” said Isabel Taylor, multicultural affairs coordinator in the Lexington Global Engagement Center under the city’s Department of Social Services.
In 2016, Taylor estimated that 56,000 immigrants lived in Lexington. The total population is estimated at 314,546, according to the department.
The growth is particularly noticeable in public school students, too. In the 2005-06 school year there were 1,520 non-English speaking students in the Fayette County Public Schools system. In 2015-16, there are 5,605 non-English speakers, an increase of 269 percent.
As more and more immigrants make Lexington home, the number of immigrant-owned businesses has grown. Here are just a few examples of how immigrants are affecting the local economy with their local businesses.
Physician also works in investment banking, equine insurance
Dr. Lachin Hatemi immigrated from Iran and Turkey to become a nuclear medicine physician, start his global advisory firm and to work in equine insurance.
Hatemi, 34, moved to the United States at 17 with his family. He graduated from the University of Kentucky with two degrees: computer science and electrical engineering. He attended UK’s medical school and later finished his residency at the University at Buffalo in New York.
Hatemi is involved with health care, investment banking and equine insurance. His father is an artist, and his mother and brother are electrical engineers. They instilled values in Hatemi when it came to grit, effort and hard work, he said.
When he first came to Lexington his English was poor, but he learned, he said.
“Everything was tough for a couple years, but eventually it came to me. I didn’t have to take English as a second language course because my English was good enough. But learning the slang here was tough,” said Hatemi.
He became a physician — “I volunteered at hospitals when I was young and I liked it”— because he wanted to take care of his family when they got sick, and it was something he was always interested in.
A Muslim, Hatemi said he has experienced discrimination and has learned firsthand that racial profiling still exists.
“I didn’t deal with it as much here in Lexington, but after 9/11, there had been incidents,” he said of the mostly minor incidents. “I am also a civil rights activist. I am a member of the NAACP in Lexington, so I do a lot of work with that,” said Hatemi, who became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
Starting a company was a meaningful achievement for Hatemi. And he was glad to be able to do it here, he said.
“There are a lot of immigrants here in Fayette County that are born outside the United States, so it’s a very global place, and studying engineering I was exposed to a lot of foreigners, so I didn’t see a lot of obstacles,” Hatemi said.
“Was it hard to start business? Of course, any business is hard if you start from scratch, but I have been successful in all of them. Immigrants make up for it with hard work and dedication to their craft.” Hatemi said.
For Johnny Print owner, Kentucky is home
Raj Parekh, manager at Johnny Print, immigrated with his parents to Lexington 35 years ago from Mumbai — formerly Bombay — India.
He and his family took over ownership of Johnny Print on South Limestone, across from the University of Kentucky, in 1986 when he finished his studies at UK. Johnny Print had been operating since 1972 and brands itself as a one-step solution for printing, digital copying, color copies and laminating.
“My sister actually lived here before we moved to America, so that is the main reason for starting our lives over here in Lexington,” said Parekh, who graduated with a business degree from UK in 1986.
Transitioning to the United States wasn’t difficult, he said. In fact, the adjustment was easier than his family thought.
“I learned my English by simply studying the culture and people around the city. It wasn’t difficult to transition,” said Parekh.
He likes Lexington mostly because of the people, he said.
“I got out of UK and started working here. We didn’t have problems with anybody when I first moved to Lexington, so the state of Kentucky is pretty good. The people are friendly and southern hospitality was surely evident,” he said.
Parekh, now a U.S. citizen, visits India occasionally to see family. Kentucky is his home, though, and he does not to move, he said.
And print shop business is good, he said.
“It helps out the students, the way we do things; having a print shop right across the street from campus is convenient.”
Dominican starts software, computer business
Freddy Peralta came to the United States from the Dominican Republic to study in 1986 with his wife, Maria, eventually ending up at the University of Kentucky.
“I came to America to study first and foremost. I was good at speaking English, but not great,” Peralta said. “Me and my wife Maria, we are improving our English every day.”
Peralta was studying agricultural economics at UK when he decided to start KyTrade inside a garage in 1990. The information technology customer service company builds computer systems, and provides service maintenance, repairs and upgrades, and networking services, according to KyTrade.com.
Asked why he left his home country to come to America, Peralta replied, “It’s the land of opportunity. I have many Dominican relatives and friends that are also in the area so the decision wasn’t a difficult one.”
After Peralta graduated, he worked at UK’s Agriculture Department, writing software for farm production.
“This put us in the path of new things,” he said. “It really made us understand how software works and what we needed to do to get where we are today.”
Peralta didn’t start his business alone. His wife, Maria, was influential.
“Without her, our company wouldn’t be what it is today. She has been a great partner, and KyTrade’s success also is attributed to her hard work and dedication.”
KyTrade moved out of the garage a while back and is now at 373 Virginia Avenue, near the UK campus.
“We have a wide range of customers,” Peralta said. “They range from students to just your average citizens.
“We want to take care of people, solve their issues and understand what the customers really want,” he said. “Our employees are not just here to sell, but they also have good knowledge of the technology industry and are updated with it.”
Peralta is proud of how his company has thrived despite tough competition.
“We have had 25 years of business,” he said. “We, KyTrade, are the most complete computer store in the city of Lexington.”
Bosnian sisters own gelato business
Sisters Selma Sulejmanagic and Alma Kajtazovic learned how to start a business from their parents, Smail and Rifka Sulejmanagic, who’ve owned Rifka’s Alterations on Richmond Road for 16 years.
“This is the main reason why we wanted to open a family business, because of our parents,” said Selma Sulejmanagic.
Selma and Alma came to the United States in 1995 with their parents from Bosnia. The sisters opened Sorella Gelateria, a small gelato shop on 219 North Limestone, in December. Sorella is Italian for sister.
Kajtazovic is in charge of the finances, and Sulejmanagic handles the cooking.
“My sister Selma loves making food,” said Kajtazovic. “That is kind of how it came about, and I love eating her food.”
The women opened the shop because Lexington lacked a premier gelato and sweets shop near downtown, Kajtazovic said. Adding a European flavor to the store is something they hope will attract customers.
“I’ve always mentioned my sister having the passion for cooking. I’m the complete opposite,” said Kajtazovic. “I have a passion for organizing, running and operating a business.”
The sisters didn’t speak English when they came to America. Kajtazovic picked it up pretty easily. Sulejmanagic found it a little more difficult. In fact, she said, she didn’t speak for a whole month when she first arrived.
“All of a sudden I just started speaking it from being around it all the time,” Sulejmanagic said.
They both graduated from Henry Clay High School. Kajtazovic earned a finance degree at the University of Kentucky and a master’s in business from Eastern Kentucky University. Sulejmanagic earned a degree in psychology and philosophy from UK.
Kajtazovic has 11 years’ experience working for smaller companies and nonprofit organizations. She lives in Lexington with her husband, Izan, and her 14-year-old daughter, Amani.
Sulejmanagic goes back home to Bosnia often.
“I’m a big foodie, so I go all over the place as a critic,” said Sulejmanagic, “I love making gelato more than I like eating gelato.”
She learned to make gelato in Italy from some of the finest chefs in the world.
“My best friend lives in Italy, and he went to a small gelato shop that was very popular,” said Sulejmanagic. “So we asked the guy who works there if we could pay him so I could study from him for a month, and that is where the passion started.”