Recent refugees face unique challenges with business ventures in Canada

The language barrier and lack of contacts make networking difficult

Diala Aleid, a Syrian refugee and entrepreneur, recalls working at her family’s restaurant nearly every day for the first several months with just her sister and mother — because the trio could afford to hire any outside help.

But that was far from the biggest financial feat they faced.

Their Toronto restaurant, Zezafoun, which is now also staffed by a number of part-time employees, nearly didn’t come to fruition.

“It’s almost impossible to start anything,” said Aleid of her family’s frustrating experience applying for a loan from a Canadian bank. She said the bank didn’t give her family a reason for their failed application.

In addition to the typical hurdles recent newcomers face such as language and cultural differences, those who want to start a business in their new country face unique challenges, including difficulties securing credit because they lack credit history or collateral.

The bank rejected Aleid mother’s loan application, so the family found a work around: combining their savings and borrowing from family. Aleid recognizes refugees without family or personal funds wouldn’t have that option.

Aleid recalls having to give up on her first venture, making and selling Syrian pantry staples, when she failed to secure a loan to keep the business going.

“So that was quite depressing, to be honest,” she said. “And I didn’t have enough money to go on with my project because I was spending out of pocket.”

She’s since started selling the products through the restaurant.

READ MORE: Two years later: Most Syrian refugees settling well in B.C., report says

READ MORE: Triage system for border crossers won’t be in place until late September

Hasan Alsheblak, who spoke to the Canadian Press through a colleague who translated, arrived in Canada via Jordan in December 2016 a few years after a missile destroyed his house in Syria.

The 31-year-old father of three started a floor tiling business nearly one year ago. He felt fed up with contract work because employers would sometimes stiff him a portion of his wages.

Now, as a business owner himself, when Alsheblak secures a deal, he hires two to five workers — often other Syrian refugees struggling to find employment — to help with the job.

But his rudimentary English is an obstacle as customers tend to prefer to work with someone who can understand them better. Sometimes, his colleague will join a phone call with clients or go on site with him to translate.

The language barrier and lack of contacts make networking difficult.

“There is a big need for connections,” he said about starting a successful new business.

There are also often cultural differences to overcome, said Nihal Elwan, a 38-year-old Egyptian immigrant who founded Vancouver’s Tayybeh Foods. The Syrian food catering company is a social enterprise that aims to employ Syrian refugee women. It currently employs seven female chefs and three other kitchen staff, as well as a few male refugee drivers.

This is the first job all of Tayybeh’s female employees have ever held, she said.

“The transition for them has been quite big from being housewives … to being the income generators and the breadwinners, and to supporting their families,” said Elwan.

Even commuting to work was a new experience for many of the women, she said.

Despite these challenges, all the business owners are optimistic about the future.

Aleid’s restaurant now also works to help teach people how to cook Syrian food and helps promote independent artists and musicians.

Alsheblak is counting on his dedication and hard work to help him get to know more people and secure more projects.

And Elwan hopes to become one of the biggest employers of young women from Syria and the Middle East, and eventually open a restaurant.

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press


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