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Lead Pan Asian group guides refugee into setting up shop locally

For Kinh Lam, the confections at his soon-to-open Mira Mesa bakery are especially sweet. He was able to leave behind the turbulence and oppression of Vietnam to set up his own pastry shop and realize the American dream.

Sorrento European Bakery will open in mid-May , with luck, just before Mother’s Day. Lam will work alongside his wife and two oldest children to serve open sandwiches and pastries, including danishes, cakes, cookies and Swedish-style meringue confections.

He also has big plans for the future , including hiring additional employees, setting up a catering business and reaching out to Asian customers with less-sugary versions of his European-style pastries. But that’s a long way off, he said.

It sounds like a typical success story, except Lam couldn’t have done it on his own. With his limited English skills, he likely would never have been able to deal with all the regulations, permits, and contracts required to open a shop in the United States.

That’s where the Union of Pan Asian Communities comes in. The economic development team at the San Diego-based UPAC helped him negotiate the maze and get a Small Business Administration loan to start up his bakery.


– A Desire For Freedom

Speaking sometimes through an interpreter, and sometimes in halting English with coaching from his wife and children, Lam describes how he came to the United States and how his bakery came into being.

“I am a refugee from Vietnam, 1979,” he said. “Vietnam was Communist , no freedom. So we left Vietnam looking for some country of freedom. We left Vietnam for Malaysia,” Lam said.

Later, Sweden welcomed Vietnamese refugees into the country, so Lam and his wife moved there. The couple lived there 19 years, and his two daughters and son were born in Sweden, he said.

Lam developed a desire to come to the United States 13 years ago, during a brief visit. Lam saw how people had a lot of opportunities here, he said.

That wasn’t the only reason, however.

“When I first go to United States, I went on vacation,” Lam said. “(It was) winter in Sweden, but here, San Diego, there is summer in December.”

That settled it. Even though an aunt had agreed to sponsor him in this country, the immigration process still took 10 years, he said.


– Attended Pastry School In Sweden

During that time, Lam went to A.M.U. Pastry School in Sweden, learning the craft of operating a European-style bakery. He then worked in Sweden as a baker.

On his arrival in San Diego three years ago, he went to work at the bakery in the 99 Ranch Market, an Asian grocery and shopping complex on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. All the while, Lam had a dream to operate his own bakery, he said.

In February, 2000, Lam read about UPAC in the local Chinese-language newspaper and applied for a loan. UPAC guided him through the whole process, he said.

Nancy Gualtieri, economic development specialist for UPAC, described how the organization assisted Lam in his quest to open a bakery.

“I helped him to write a business plan , how to start a small business as an owner of a bakery shop,” Gualtieri said. “I helped him get a loan, and also assisted with the translation with the real estate company when he tried to rent a property. And also I helped him negotiate the lease.”

UPAC even assisted Lam in negotiating with the company that provided equipment for his shop. It saved him both time and money, Gualtieri said.


– Providing Services To Asian Community

This is typical of the services UPAC provides. The organization’s founder, Beverley Yip, created UPAC in 1973 to address the need for services among the struggling and English-deficient Asian community, said Margaret Iwanaga-Penrose, president and chief executive officer of UPAC.

In its early years, the focus was a language-assistance program for immigrants displaced by the Vietnam War. But UPAC since has grown to provide services to the Asian community as a whole, she said.

Currently, among Asian and Pacific Islanders living in the United States, about two-thirds of them are immigrants. Of those, about 40 percent do not speak English, Iwanaga-Penrose said.

As the organization has grown, its mission has shifted slightly, expanding beyond its core community. Despite the “Asian” name, UPAC also has assisted Russian, Somali and even Arabic-speaking immigrants, she said.

In fact, UPAC has more than 100 employees and volunteers who speak 27 languages and dialects, Iwanaga-Penrose said.

Last year, more than 5,000 individuals were assisted by UPAC’s services. These include improving access to health care, alcohol and drug services, domestic violence intervention, employment services and senior services, she said.

UPAC’s economic development division helps entrepreneurs looking to start a new business and provides assistance to already existing businesses. This applies not only to small businesses, but also some high-tech startups as well, Gualtieri said. The results have been particularly noteworthy. Of the roughly 400 new businesses UPAC has assisted since its inception, 388 are still in business, she said.

That success rate , about 97 percent , is phenomenal in an era in which SBA statistics state that about eight out of 10 small businesses fail in their first five years, Gualtieri said.

UPAC does it on a budget of $4.5 million. That means the organization sometimes has to skimp on essentials and therefore the economic development department doesn’t always have the budget for newspaper ads like the one Lam saw, Iwanaga-Penrose said.

Next week, UPAC will hold two fund-raising events , a golf tournament May 9 and an annual gala dinner May 10. Iwanaga-Penrose hopes that these two events will raise $250,000.

That money could go a long way to helping immigrants like Lam. Gualtieri wonders how many other hopeful entrepreneurs are missing out, simply because they don’t see UPAC mentioned in the paper and don’t know what services are out there, she said.

Lam, meanwhile, remains grateful.

“I’m very happy, and thank you. UPAC helped me a lot and also the American country, to help me achieve this,” he said. “I wait to come here more than 10 years; (this is) the American dream.”

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