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Taking care of business in New York's 'Little Egypt'

From Lisa Desai and Sarah Gross, CNN
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New York's 'Little Egypt'
  • Steinway Street, in Astoria, New York City, is known as "Little Egypt"
  • The area has long been a home to immigrants, including Germans, Italians and Greeks
  • Many merchants there work to support their families in Egypt
  • As in the rest of the United States, traders in Little Egypt have been hit by the recession

New York (CNN) -- When chef and food aficionado Ali El Sayed opened the Kebab Café in Astoria, New York City, some 24 years ago, few there had even heard of Egyptian cuisine.

He was the first to open an Egyptian business on Steinway Street, a bustling neighborhood in the borough of Queens, and a small-business hub now known as "Little Egypt."

It's long been a home to immigrants -- first Germans, then Italians and Greeks, and most recently, Arabs. Almost half of Queens businesses are minority owned and together they bring in an average of $7 billion annually.

While it typifies the growth of many American neighborhoods, Little Egypt also boasts one of the most diverse populations in the United States, according to recent census results. Foreign-born residents in the borough come from over 100 different nations.

El Sayed embraces the new immigrants he's seen settle here in his 40-plus years in Astoria.

(The) neighborhood it changes because if a neighborhood doesn't change it means it's a dead neighborhood.
--Ali El Sayed, Kebab Cafe, New York City

"(The) neighborhood it changes because if a neighborhood doesn't change it means it's a dead neighborhood," he said.

And this neighborhood has certainly changed. From selling hookah pipes, to selling Islamic clothes, recently arrived merchants from North Africa have found ways to set-up shop.

The U.S. government estimates that 60,000 Egyptian Americans live in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with more than 21,000 of them in New York City.

Merchants here aren't just at the whim of shifting tastes and the demands of new arrivals. Like business owners everywhere, they're also susceptible to changes in the national economy.

El Sayed's brother, Moustafa Abdel Rahman, is chef at the Mombar Restaurant across the road. He knows first hand the perils of change.

"You know the recession affects everybody -- the recession, 9/11 all these things ... the snow affects this business," he said.

For him, as for many of the immigrants who pass through here, less income has far-reaching consequences. Many merchants in Little Egypt work with one goal in mind -- to support the families they left behind.

Nile Deli owner Hesam Makhlos has relatives in Egypt who depend on him.

"A lot of people support his family back home," said Makhlos. "At least if you send like $100 a month to support your family, if you have a wife over there or if you have a sister or a mother. A lot of people need help."

And they depend on each other here too, El Sayed explained.

"We believe that money goes around and we want to take care of our neighborhood and our merchants," he said.

El Sayed practices what he preaches, shopping daily in the local markets to stock his restaurant's kitchen.

Supporting the neighborhood is not his only impetus. Immigrants with common origins often have common ideals. Mohamed Zohny is the owner of the Islam Fashion store. He prefers doing business with other Muslims in Little Egypt.

"This is only Halal money, like for example, there is no liquor, no ham, no pork, nothing; everything is 100%. I know it is Halal," he said.