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From refugee to Camelback Corridor business owner

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Nick Ming, refugee and owner of Ming's Water and Ice. Photo: Isaac Jensen

At first glance, you might think Ming’s Water and Ice is just another business along the Camelback Light Rail Corridor, a major transit corridor in the heart of uptown Phoenix. However, a closer look at refugee owner Nick Ming's story shows an entrepreneurial spirit shared by many refugees. 

Nick Ming fled communist rule in Vietnam in 1980, in the wake of the Vietnam War. “We had nothing, no food, no water, we just fled.” Nick, along with a dozen others, jumped on a boat headed to nowhere in search of hope and a better life. Five days later, they spotted a speck in the distance, which turned out to be a ship, and were rescued. After nutrition, medical, and hygiene needs were met, they were taken to a refugee camp on an island in Indonesia, organized by the United Nations.

Nick waited at the refugee camp for 6 months before his case for resettlement was approved. His application was helped by the fact that his family had assisted the US by translating during the war. A short time later, Nick was sponsored by a local Phoenix church, who helped to provide airfare as well as room and board. He considered himself lucky because "everyone wanted to go to America".

At just 27 years old, Nick arrived in Phoenix on August 23rd, 1980. “When I went out of the airport it smelled different; very dry and very hot.” Through the help of cultural orientation classes, Nick received education on American culture, language basics, and navigation. The church helped Nick secure his documents to work first as a part-time custodian, and then shortly after as a mechanic. Nick learned quickly and was able to save enough money within a year to purchase a car, a Ford Pinto, which he said others referred to as “a lemon.” With his license in hand and two jobs secured, he kept saving and acclimating to his new life here in Phoenix.

Nick Ming, owner of Ming's Water and Ice. Photo: Isaac Jensen

Some of the members of the church offered to send Nick to school at DeVry University where he eventually graduated with an Engineering degree. After graduation Nick joined Motorola, where he earned a salary and continued saving. He had enough money to buy a townhouse in cash just 5 years later. This pattern of hard work and savings continued for Nick, preparing him for his new adventure as a small business owner and property manager. Nick currently lives with his wife in Phoenix. They have five grown children and multiple grandchildren.

Nick Ming pursued business ownership for the first time in 2003, when he launched Ming's Water and Ice by purchasing the existing shop and all the supplies for around $150,000. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he had made a good decision, with revenue of $10,000 coming in monthly.

Little did he know, the light rail would soon be coming straight down Camelback Road, with construction starting just 5 short years after he took ownership. “Everybody closed during the light rail being built, and some businesses left altogether,” said Nick. Nick and his store survived the changes to the corridor and remain a steady business in the plaza today.

Nick Ming offers the following business advice: “It is simple. If you have a skill, use it to start a business. If you don’t, then buy property.” He has done both things by putting away money monthly, a habit he had from the beginning. His recommendation: “Save money. If you make $100,000 and spend it that means you’re broke. But, if you make $30,000 a year and you save $10,000 a year, after ten years you have $100,000.” Starting from the time he was a custodian making $3.00 per hour, Nick saved 60-70% of his income and learned to live with less. “Make the money work back for you. I opened the business to create jobs and make additional money for me.”

Ming's Water and Ice is part of the Camelback Light Rail Corridor, and one of 43 refugee or immigrant-owned businesses in the district. Photo: IRC

With the support of LISC Phoenix, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix has worked to empower and connect business owners and neighborhood members along the Camelback Light Rail Corridor. The Camelback Light Rail Corridor was one of the commercial corridors identified by LISC as a key TOD (transit oriented development) corridor. At the commercial plaza where Ming's Water and Ice is located, the IRC has hosted monthly pop-up markets to provide opportunity to new entrepreneurs and highlight the multicultural businesses along the Camelback Light Rail Corridor. Nick has helped promote workshops and events while empowering his employees to participate in pursuing their own business ventures. One employee, Evelyn, was empowered to launch her hobby of bow-making into Evelyn's Bows, an active member of the market and participant in the World Bazaar PHX. 

The story of Nick Ming is a testament to the tenacity and dedication of the small business community on the Camelback Corridor, and especially its refugee and immigrant business owners. "That’s the American life, opportunity everywhere!"

Check out the IRC in Phoenix Facebook page for updates on events on the Camelback Corridor. 

Story and photos by Isaac Jensen.