Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Syrian refugees are using food and recipes from their homeland to help achieve success wherever they settle
From chocolate to cheese, these individuals have carved out new lives for themselves while facing cultural and linguistic challenges, she writes
Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Lost in the debate over the Trump travel ban, which has now partially gone into effect, is a vital fact about refugees. Many of them bring huge benefits to the nations in which they settle – because time and again, starting up businesses is a part of starting over for those finding a new home.
In Canada, one of the country’s most talked-about – and sought-after – sweets companies is the product of a family’s enormous loss.
Assam Hadhad launched Peace by Chocolate out of his kitchen in his adopted home of Antogonish in Nova Scotia after a missile struck his factory in Syria and his family finally decided to flee the danger and the death of the civil war. His family has now shared its story of displacement and new beginnings with audiences ranging from TED participants to the Canadian prime minister. As Assam’s son Tareq, now studying in Canada after having been a medical student in Syria, says, “maybe we started from zero, but we brought our skills with us.”
The Canadian catering company Syrian Cuisine Made With Love has a similar story of a family thrown out of its own country by the conflict’s violence and now creating growth and opportunity for others by feeding Canadians — and hiring other Syrians.
In the United Kingdom, one cheese company is winning fans — including among the country’s royal family and the nation’s prime minister — as it provides a living to Syrians who’ve lost everything to the war. Razan Alsous fled Syria in 2012 with her husband and three children – aged three and under — after a bomb hit just in front of her husband’s office. Desperate to find work and unable to find a job after months of looking, she decided to create her own opportunity and use her training in microbiology to start making cheese. Like the Hadhad family, she began her business selling at a local farmer’s market and soon found hungry customers who loved what she made. In 2014 she received a license to make and sell cheese. A few days later she found her first distributor at a local food fair and “four months later, her halloumi-style cheese won the bronze prize at the World Cheese Awards, competing against 2,750 others. She took gold in 2015.”
“It is not easy to resettle in a new place when you didn’t plan to do so. I needed to start a new life in a place where I don’t have any friends, family or relation,” Alsous says. “I’ve been accepted by the community and had support for my business.”
Indeed, the obstacles facing new residents fleeing war’s devastation are real and significant. Refugees can find — as Alsous did — that their studies and their academic degrees matter little in their new country. That can make getting a job an uphill battle. Add to that a new culture, new language and the need to find education for your children while paying for a new home, and the challenges of just eking out a living can be daunting.
Entrepreneurship offers one way around the difficulties.
Here in the United States, the story is little different when it comes to refugees who have come to the country. Syrians in the Washington area are banding together to use a real-life community and a Facebook page founded by a fellow Syrian to show the work they can do and the services they can provide. And they are using the page to help build and grow the businesses they are starting. Nader Briman is sewing wedding dresses. And his wife is cooking shawarma and meat pies.
The Brimans’ new community stands to gain from their arrival. One study out of Cleveland in 2013 noted that “in advanced economies, once refugees have adjusted to their new life after resettlement, they can provide substantial contributions to the workforce and economic development in the long run at the regional level.”
Other American entrepreneurs have tread a path reminiscent of the Brimans and made a difference not just for their neighborhoods, but their new nation. Hamdi Ulukaya came to the United States in 1994 to escape escalating political tensions in Turkey, where his status as a politically active Kurd – albeit one who disavowed violence — earned him the attention of Turkish police. Not knowing what the next day would bring – and whether he wound survive the next round-up by Turkish authorities — he chose to make America his home. Just over a decade later, he launched Chobani, a category-creating Greek yoghurt company that today is America’s biggest-selling yogurt brand, earning $2 billion in annual revenues.
Today close to a third of Ulukaya’s workers at Chobani’s Idaho plant are refugees. Or newly arrived Americans. As Ulukaya has said, “the minute a refugee has a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee.” Refugees, Ulukaya wrote in an op-ed, haven’t “just helped build our business; they’ve helped improve our community. The same is true of former refugees like Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin, Intel (INTC, Tech30) co-founder Andy Grove, or WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum – some of the world’s most innovative and successful businesses simply wouldn’t exist if they had been turned away in their time of need.”
Ulukaya’s native Turkey is now home to roughly three million Syrian refugees. Only 10% of this group lives in refugee camps; nearly all are working to find homes in cities and battling high rents and stiff competition for work in a very tight labor market full of people seeking to make a living.
Today, Syrians are leading the list of foreign nationals launching businesses there. Turkish government data shows Syrians consistently topping the list of “foreign business starters” in the country: In May alone, “174, or 28.8 percent, of foreign-partnered companies were founded directly by Syrian people or Syrian nationals in partnerships.”
The numbers also show that “the total number of new companies launched in Turkey was 15.12 percent higher year-on-year in May.”
Among them are Syrian women launching small-scale food businesses, and Syrian men moving their larger enterprises from the home they escaped to the country providing them refuge. The companies may vary in size, but their goal is the same: to help support their families and, when possible, to create jobs for others.
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A recent report from the non-profit organization Building Markets finds that since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Syrians in Turkey have started more than 6,000 new companies. If you add in informal businesses that aren’t registered with the government, that number would top 10,000. This year alone Syrians are on track to start 2,000 new enterprises. On average, the companies in the Building Markets study offer jobs to nine people — with close to a third of the companies saying they plan to expand.
All these entrepreneurs are starting up, starting over and making the people they meet reconsider what they think of when it comes to refugees seeking safety after fleeing the hell of war. And in the process they are creating growth and opportunities not just for themselves, but for the communities and the countries they now call home.