Four Years After Arrival, Syrian Refugees Are Becoming Entrepreneurs

Abdulelah Basboos cutting a client's hair. Image: Alexandre Silberman/ Huddle Today

FREDERICTON – A few weeks after arriving in New Brunswick, Abdulelah Basboos spoke just a few words of English. But the barber by trade used a translation app to tell his Canadian support volunteers he aspired to open his own shop.

Basboos studied English full time, worked on weekends, and began saving to open his business. Less than four years after coming to Canada that dream of opening a barbershop is now a reality.

“You have to have a goal to focus on and have to have something in your mind,” he said.

Basboos is not alone. Syrian newcomers to Fredericton have become entrepreneurs, starting businesses as tailors, barbers, home renovators and restaurant owners. They are also filling key roles in the workforce for already established companies.

That economic participation in the provincial capital is following trends in the province and Atlantic Canada. The majority of Syrians have succeeded in finding work and average family incomes are growing.

Nearly 60 percent of Syrians refugees in the country are working, while another 23 percent are seeking employment, according to a report from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada published in June 2019.

More than 3,600 resettled in Atlantic Canada since the end of 2015, with about 1,400 Syrian refugees in New Brunswick.

In Fredericton, Syrians are starting businesses or have found employment as tailors, construction workers, bricklayers, pharmacy assistants, cooks and banquet staff.

Cutting three types of hair

Originally from Daraa in southwestern Syria, Basboos owned a successful barbershop. When the civil war broke out in 2011, he fled with his wife and four children to Jordan, leaving everything behind.

After getting a call from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, he was offered the chance to relocate to Canada, a place he knew little about.

In the middle of New Brunswick winter, Basboos and his family landed at the Fredericton airport in January 2016. A representative from the multicultural association was expected to meet them, but no one arrived due to a scheduling mistake.

“And after one hour, I went to the reception desk and I tried to explain to them. I tried to find someone to help me,” he said. “But I had no English, I was just using my body language.”

The airport security found an employee who spoke Arabic to help, and a few hours later, someone from the association came.

The language barrier experienced since that first day has proven to be the greatest challenge. Canadian volunteers who helped the family settle were crucial, assisting with trips to the grocery store and doctor.

“It’s hard to make an appointment, hard to ask about something you need. But I worked hard on it.”

That obstacle was one most Syrians refugees have faced. When arriving in 2016, 75 percent had no knowledge of English or French.

Basboos, now 34, started studying English and taking classes full time at the Multicultural Association of Fredericton. He also took courses in first aid, business, food safety and interpretation.

His wife will be taking a GED class and plans to study at New Brunswick Community College this summer. Their children, who range in age from five to 11, have been integrating well.

On Saturdays and the occasional weekday after class, Basboos worked at the Royal Barbershop on King Street.

“When I was working part-time I was focused on ‘If I want to open my shop, what should I do?’ I was writing everything,” he said.

Navigating the regulations, the legal steps to starting a business and the Canadian tax system were all challenges. But in November, the Tip Top Barbershop opened its doors after an extensive renovation.

After working as a barber in three countries – Syria, Jordan and Canada – Basboos said his experience with many types of hair has proven useful.

“All the customers, they need four things. They need a good price, a good haircut, good service and a nice smile, that’s all they need,” he said.

“A lot of people, they try us one time, they come back again.”

Basboos said New Brunswickers have been incredibly helpful in encouraging the business and welcoming his family into the community. He now speaks English with ease, rarely pausing to search for words during an interview.

Fluency in English and French for Syrian refugees is increasing. The report from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada found the vast majority are now comfortable with day-to-day tasks in an official language. But that initial obstacle remains for some newcomers in Fredericton.

“A lot of my Syrian friends, they want to open their own business, but they struggle with their English,” he said. “They need more time.”

Cooking up flavours from home

As an opening day promotion, Othman Chikhou and Fayad Al Jassem gave sandwiches at their new café – Big Bite Snacks – during lunch hour. By the end of the day, there was nothing left as hundreds of people – including the mayor – stopped by.

The path to starting the business in January was challenging. The two refugees struggled with English and to secure funding to start up the restaurant with limited credit history in Canada.

Chikhou sold his car and some of his wife’s gold jewelry. Al Jassem put expenses on his credit card and also sold a car. The two entrepreneurs borrowed money from friends.

Othman Chikhou and Fayad Al Jassem, owner of Big Bite Snacks. Image: Alexandre Silberman/ Huddle Today

“How to interact and speak with others, the biggest obstacle we faced was the English language,” Chikhou said through an interpreter, his friend Ahmad Elneemani.

In Syria, Chikhou worked as an executive chef for a large restaurant in Damascus, cooking Mediterranean dishes for more than 30 years. His family moved to Lebanon to seek refuge from the war.

Al Jassem, who co-owns the restaurant, worked in agriculture, before fleeing to Lebanon and Egypt.

“It was a huge shift when you move away from Egypt, a hundred million population, and you come here to a small city, and you feel how people treat you in a good way,” he said. “So this will make me fully satisfied for our future and for our lives.”

Both of the men began by taking English classes after arriving in 2016. They have also been involved in starting an Arabic Cultural Centre in the community.

Elneemani, a Palestinian from Dubai, met Chikhou and Al Jassem when he moved to Fredericton last year. The Syrians told him of their aspiration to open a restaurant, and he agreed to help with the paperwork and applications to open Big Bite Snacks.

The small business serves a mix of Canadian and Syrian dishes, including pastries, tabbouleh, soups, falafel and shawarma.

The café owners hope that talking with English-speaking customers each day will help them improve their language skills. Canadians are often not familiar with Arabic cuisine and ask questions about ingredients, which can be difficult to answer.

“A challenge was not having the knowledge of how to open a business,” Chikhou said. “Without the help of Ahmad [Elneemani] we wouldn’t be able to open this café, because we are weak in English and we don’t know how to communicate well yet.”

Elneemani said it has been rewarding to be able to help make the goal of opening the restaurant possible.

“I saw the smile on their faces the first day they opened this cafe when the mayor came here and they saw all the guests show up,” he said.

Chikhou said he’s thankful for the support of the Fredericton community.

“They are encouraging us to do our best,” he said.

Finding a ‘sense of dignity’

Many newcomers, like Mohammad Al Khateeb, often face the challenge of having foreign degrees and credentials go unrecognized in Canada, which is another barrier identified in the federal government’s report.

He worked as a high school teacher and programmer in Syria before coming to Fredericton. His wife was a civil and software engineer.

When the war broke out, Al Khateeb and his family fled to Jordan in 2011. He arrived in New Brunswick in 2016, settling in Fredericton.

“They told me this city is going to be really good for kids, and it’s good for IT,” he said.

But since his credentials were not recognized in Canada, Al Khateeb went to study IT systems administration at Eastern College.

“Before the decision to come here, we knew that we were coming to a new country, new culture, new language. We have to build ourselves again from scratch, so I don’t mind doing that,” he said. “I knew it was going to be hard for us, but it’s better.”

Mohammad Al Khateeb. Image: Submitted.

Four months ago, Al Khateeb landed the job he aspired to have since arriving. He’s working in cloud cybersecurity for NB Power. The 34-year-old is now fluent in English and back working in his field.

“I would say New Brunswick is a positive environment, open mind,” he said.

Janet Moser, managing director of immigration services for Ignite Fredericton, said when refugees are able to start a business it gives them a sense of belonging. It also helps to eliminate the stigma and misconception that they’re not contributing.

“It will build their self-esteem and give them back their independence and sense of dignity,” she said. “They find new hope and dreams in our communities across New Brunswick.”

Moser said when she worked on immigrant business initiatives with the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, some Syrian refugees went through the startup mentorship program.

“You could just feel a sense of pride coming off these people because they’ve all come from somewhere, they’ve all had a background, they’ve all been professional in one capacity or another,” she said. “And when they get here it’s very difficult because they feel like they’re completely at ground zero again and starting from nothing.”