A Collaboration is Assisting Maine Immigrants in Obtaining Zero-Interest Business Loans.

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Deborah Bafongo founded Angels of Love Event Design in South Portland in 2019 with no outside funding or loans.

Bafongo specialized in supplying decor for formal events, particularly weddings, and had intended to work on enough weddings in 2020 to recoup the money she spent on equipment. However, when the pandemic struck and weddings were canceled in droves, Bafongo found herself in desperate need of some extra support to keep her business going.

She learned about a program sponsored by the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center that would provide interest-free loans to company owners like her through a mutual acquaintance. Bafongo, who moved to South Portland from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, obtained a $2,500 loan with a 21-month repayment period. She intends to use the funds to acquire a larger storage container to serve as a showcase for her creations, as well as additional equipment.

“I desperately needed the money,” she explained. “As an immigrant, I am pleased that this platform exists to assist us achieve in our careers….” At the time (due to the pandemic), I desperately needed help from somewhere.”


The funding for Bafongo’s business is the product of a collaboration between DreamxAmerica, or DxA – a national effort combining storytelling and effect to empower immigrant communities launched by Andrew Leon Hanna in 2018 – and Kiva, a nonprofit that allows people to lend money online.

In November 2020, DxA will premiere the storytelling component of its project, a documentary on three immigrant entrepreneurs in North Carolina. When it came time to start the impact side of DxA’s project, Hanna approached Rohit Agarwal – the leader of Kiva’s U.S. program and a connection from their time at global management consulting company McKinsey & Company – to develop a relationship that might provide money for immigrant business owners.

Immigrant entrepreneurs may experience difficulties obtaining typical bank loans, sometimes due to a lack of established U.S. credit records, and sometimes due to racial or cultural discrimination.

“A lot of the time, the financial system does not handle low-income minority immigrant people as well as it should,” Hanna added. “There is sometimes a lot of suspicion, and sometimes there are unreasonable rates. … We like Kiva because (the loan) is simple and straightforward. There are no rates to look into, nor are there any other hidden costs. There is no interest and no fees.”

DxA works with four local organizations across the country, including the Welcome Center, to publicize the loan offer and assist company owners during the application process. Staff at DxA edit applications to make their tales more concise in order to attract as many lenders as possible, while a team at Kiva examines the formal applications and assesses the loan amount the firm qualifies for. Then, DxA promotes the business owner’s borrower profile until the loan is fully funded.

Agarwal believes that the local groups with whom DxA collaborates are crucial to creating trust in Kiva’s loan program.

“The major method for us to create confidence – because within a lot of these areas, there is understandably a good bit of suspicion in traditional financial institutions – is through trustworthy partners on the ground,” Agarwal added. “And here comes DreamxAmerica, which I believe has done an excellent job of creating confidence through immigrant welcoming centers (and) through various other intermediaries to say, ‘Hey, here’s a terrific source of cash, zero-fee, zero-interest.’

These local organizations frequently already have close relationships with immigrant company owners and can act as a trustworthy middleman.

“Most small-business immigrant entrepreneurs aren’t going to go to the Kiva site and say, ‘Oh, this seems good,’” Hanna said. “You need someone to vouch for it.”

Navid Ahadzadeh, the recipient of a $8,500 interest-free loan for his Casco-based business, Scratch Master Mobile, a moving vehicle repair service, used a portion of the credit to acquire a new van.


The Welcome Center’s business hub, which opened in 2017, serves this purpose in Maine by linking immigrant business owners with diverse sources of funding.

“Research suggests that immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to start firms and small businesses,” said Reza Jalali, the center’s executive director. “By doing so, (business owners) create jobs not just for themselves but also for others in the community. Part of what we do at (the) business hub is assist immigrants in obtaining money and then matching them with lenders.”

So far, seven Maine business owners have had their loans fully paid through the DxA-Kiva Special Initiative, with two more in the process of being funded.

Navid Ahadzadeh, the founder and owner of Scratch Master Mobile, a mobile auto repair firm based in Casco, met Jalali through the local Iranian immigrant community and successfully sought for a $8,500 loan to develop his business. He utilized a portion of the loan to buy a new van.

“Because my business is mobile, and (because of) my aging vehicle, my alternatives were somewhat limited,” Ahadzadeh explained. “So, when I obtain a bigger van, it will be more reliable and professional. It will appear to be professional.”

Ahadzadeh migrated to the United States in 2009 from Sari, Iran, due to persecution in his home country, which limited his employment prospects.

“I am a Baha’i, and the Baha’i are a fiercely persecuted religious minority in Iran,” Ahadzadeh explained. “Baha’is in Iran are not permitted to pursue further education, and many enterprises owned by Baha’is are closed down by the government. So knowing that individuals in another countries are assisting you with the financing and everything else simply makes me extremely happy.”


In addition to assisting immigrant company owners with restricted access to cash, interest-free loans have religious importance for many. Historically, Islamic law prohibits paying interest on loans, prompting many Muslim immigrant company owners to seek loans from sources other than traditional banks. This was the case with Humza Khan, the founder of Inclusion Maine, a diversity, equality, and inclusion consulting firm based in Westbrook. He was given a loan of $6,500.

Humza Khan

“One of the things that drew me to this program was the interest-free component,” said Khan, who was born in Pakistan but spent much of his childhood in Maine. “Of course, I could go to – anyone can go to a bank, or they can go to venture capital, and they can go and raise the money… But I wanted to avoid interest for religious reasons.”

“(With the loan), I can invest in the things I’m working on and pay it off over time while remaining in accordance with (my) religious beliefs,” Khan added. “That’s what drew me to this program over a more typical option.”

Khan used some of the money to pay for more advertising, but his main goal is to host a conference.

“One of the things I hope to focus on is a conference for diversity and inclusion,” Khan remarked. “So it’s an emphasis on getting people together who are engaged in this work and learning about what the local difficulties are, how we can handle them, and what works. … I’m hoping that (the conference) won’t be too expensive for people, and this funding will surely help me get started in making that happen. It has already helped.”

For Jalali, the program is also useful as an example of the opportunities open to immigrants in Maine.

“Bringing some money into the state is always good news, as is aiding our new neighbors who have been uprooted by wars, famine, and persecution,” Jalali remarked. “As a result, it is beneficial to Maine, which has an aging workforce. We need more immigrants, and may (this program) be one method to attract new ones?

“Could this be a way for some immigrants in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts to look at Maine and say, ‘Well, that’s a terrific state to go and start a business?’ This will benefit us in the long run by attracting new enterprises (and) more young people (who are) competent, educated, and driven to come and contribute to the richness of our community.”

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