From refugees to entrepreneurs: How one family started over
With just 30 days notice, the Rawas family was plucked from their temporary home in Jordan, where they’d fled the Syrian civil war, and resettled in Oakland. As refugees, they knew no one, had no job prospects and didn’t speak a word of English.
Three years later, Mohammed Aref Rawas, Rawaa Kasedah and their four children are running a budding catering business that serves authentic Syrian food such as smoked basmati rice, falafel and fattoush salad. They’ve hired their first employee. Their clients include big tech companies. And the days when starting over seemed impossible are far behind them.
They are among a large population of refugees who, after fleeing a homeland overrun by violence and political turmoil, started a business in the U.S., integrating quickly into the economy and life of a country that gave them a second chance. The family’s entrepreneurial approach is common among immigrants, studies show.
An estimated 11 percent of all Syrian immigrants in the labor force are business owners — nearly four times the rate of U.S.-born business owners, according to a study by the New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. A significant part of that success has been the ability to master the English language, the report said.
Meanwhile, a 2016 study by the Institute that followed Bosnian, Burmese, Hmong and Somali refugees nationwide found that they too moved up the occupational ladder and started businesses after settling in the U.S. Thirty one out of every 1,000 Bosnian refugees in the labor force are business owners, compared with 26 out of every 1,000 Burmese, 22 out of 1,000 Hmong and 15 out of every 1,000 Somalis, the study found.
“There’s a hunger for dignified work,” said Dr. Thane Kreiner, executive director of the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. Kreiner launched an accelerator program known as Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins, which helps businesses and organizations around the world run by refugees, migrants or victims of human trafficking. “There’s this element of launching businesses, but also of integrating with the new host community so the refugees become part of the community rather than the ‘other.’”
The Rawas family started Old Damascus Fare casually, by happenstance last year though the family has entrepreneurship in their blood. Rawas owned a successful clothing factory in Syria, where he oversaw about 50 employees. The family lived comfortably in a suburb in their native Damascus. But increasing gunfire, kidnappings and the presence of military groups forced them to leave, and their temporary escape to Jordan in 2012 soon became permanent.
More than 500,000 Syrians have died and nearly 6 million have fled during a civil war that began seven years ago with an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Since the Trump administration’s ban on travel from seven Muslim nations, including Syria, only a handful of Syrian refugees have been resettled in California in the past fiscal year.
As the Rawas family settled into the Bay Area, new friends and acquaintances in the Arab community asked Kasedah to cater birthday parties and other events. By then, the family had noticed the absence of authentic Syrian food, even in Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods. Soon they were catering events for local tech companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
“We got to the point where we realized it’s not only about food,” said Batool Rawoas, one of the couple’s daughters. “We are making new friends, we are hearing about new opportunities. It’s a way to share our culture with the people here.”
They’re a powerful example of the American dream, said David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, which resettled the Rawas family in 2015. “They show that these are people who want to work and not be reliant on welfare,” he said.
Miliband visited the family recently at their catering kiosk on the UC Berkeley campus before he gave a speech, ordering the falafel sandwich and munching on appetizers that the family excitedly prepared for him. Because refugees like the Rawas’ often have to reinvent their lives, he said, that makes them resilient entrepreneurs.
“In a way, being a refugee, having to flee for your life, having to figure out who to trust, having to figure out new ways of survival … there could hardly be a more effective job training program,” he said. “Those qualities of cooperation, determination, courage, trust are important for any entrepreneur. I don’t want to trivialize it, but it makes the point.”
The family admits they’re still struggling. Their expenses regularly exceed their income, and they’re overwhelmed by the painstaking details of operating a business.
“The main challenge for any refugee family is navigating how to survive in the Bay Area because it’s so expensive,” said Rawoas, who is attending community college and hopes to transfer to a four-year university to study psychology and public health. “We lived in Syria, we were from the middle class and we had a very comfortable life. We owned our own house, our own land.”
“But we’re hoping, in the future, this will be a good thing to support us financially,” she added.
Their next goal: to own a restaurant.
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