From Syrian refugees to business owners in 1 year

Syrian couple who came to Victoria, B.C., as refugees open new business making food

By Gregor Craigie, CBC News
Posted: Jun 13, 2017 3:01 PM PT           Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017 3:01 PM PT

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar came to Canada as refugees in 2016. They now make Syrian food and have a food company called Saraya Hot Bread in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

A Syrian couple who came to Canada as refugees last year are the new owners of a fledgling food business they started with the help of new Canadian friends.

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar make several types of Mediterranean food with traditional Syrian recipes, such as Baba ghanoush, Dolma, lentil fingers and stuffed hot bread.

They now sell their food under the name Saraya Hot Bread at a deli in Victoria, B.C.

Making food comes naturally to the family but starting a new business in a new country with a long list of licences and health requirements did not. So, the couple relied on the help of volunteers from a local refugee sponsorship group.

Karen Short is a volunteer with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society, which is working to sponsor Hajibrahim’s sister to come to Canada as a refugee. In six weeks, Short and other volunteers helped the Syrian couple set up a sole proprietorship, obtain necessary licences, and find an accredited commercial kitchen.

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar stand with Lisa Buchan, the deli director at the Red Barn Markets, and Karen Short, with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

Ibrahim Hajibrahim, Ranim Khochkar, Lisa Buchan, and Karen Short
Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar stand with Lisa Buchan, the deli director at the Red Barn Markets, and Karen Short, with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

“Ibrahim said do you think people would buy our food if we had a restaurant?” Short recalled. “There isn’t a Syrian restaurant in Victoria and startup costs for a restaurant are huge. And I said, well, I think people would buy your food if you could think of a way to sell it without the expenditure of setting up a storefront operation.”

The food is now sold at one of the Red Barn Market grocery stores in Victoria, B.C.

The deli director of Red Barn Markets, Lisa Buchan, said it was an easy decision to sell the product.

“Well, I tasted it,” she said, “and that pretty much sold itself.”

The Saraya Hot Bread foods are now only sold in one location, but Buchan said “we’re hoping to expand to other locations soon.”

Hajibrahim and Khochkar are hopeful their new business will help them make ends meet in their new hometown.

Rent is expensive in Victoria, and they have four young children to support, as well as Hajibrahim’s mother.

A new business and a new life in Canada

As was the case with so many other Syrian refugees, the couple never planned on leaving their home.

But when armoured vehicles surrounded their neighbourhood in the city of Latakia, in 2013, Hajibrahim feared for his safety.

He is a pharmacist and had provided medicine to many people in the community during the fighting. He worried that he might be arrested as a result, so he fled to Turkey.

Hajibrahim hopes to work as a pharmacist here, eventually, but first he will have to recertify and learn more technical English. That is likely to take three years, but in the meantime he said the family’s new business venture has made him feel like his family belongs.

“So, we feel now like we are not refugees,” Hajibrahim said. “We are settled people.”

Private sponsorship groups in B.C. want Ottawa to do more to ensure refugees arrive

Wendy Stueckorshalomsyrianrefugeeinitiative

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 8:14PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 8:17PM EST

 

Private sponsorship groups in the Lower Mainland are calling on the federal government to do more to ensure Syrian refugees get to Canada, saying they feel shortchanged by a process that matched them to refugee families and then appeared to grind to a halt.

“We were told that our families would arrive, at the latest, by December or January – and we still don’t know what’s happening,” said David Berson, co-chair of the Or Shalom Syrian Refugee Initiative.

Mr. Berson and representatives from other sponsorship groups spoke Friday at a news conference held to highlight concerns over processing times.

Or Shalom and a dozen other Lower Mainland churches, synagogues and community groups have applied to privately sponsor refugees from Syria and submitted their paperwork before March 31. The federal government has said it would do its best to ensure applications submitted before that date were processed by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

Read more: New report offers glimpse into lives of British Columbia’s Syrian refugees  

Read more: Senate committee calls on Ottawa to do more for refugee integration 

Read more: One year after arrival, Syrian refugees continue to face employment barriers

Despite that reassurance, the groups are worried that processing could stretch into late 2017 or beyond. The applications involve about 100 people – all of whom have family members or friends already living in the Lower Mainland – in refugee camps in northern Iraq.

“Some of the Syrian refugees are wondering if Canada is going to make good on its commitment to resettle them,” NDP MP and immigration critic Jenny Kwan said at the news conference.

“This is not a message we want to be sending to the international community.”

The government could do more to ensure privately sponsored refugee applications are processed in a timely fashion, Ms. Kwan said, including seeking assistance in conducting interviews from other agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms. Kwan said.

In a recent e-mail to The Globe and Mail, an Immigration Department spokeswoman said, “the commitment to process privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications submitted up to March 31, 2016 has always been by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

“This deadline has not moved and we are on track.”

As of Nov. 20, 84 per cent of privately sponsored applications submitted by March 31, 2016 were in process, which means that they “were under review or had been finalized,” the spokeswoman said.

An Immigration Department spokeswoman also said “operational planning is under way for a follow-up trip into northern Iraq, during which we hope to schedule these [privately sponsored refugee] cases.”

Sponsor groups that have been in communication with people in refugee camps say those people have not been interviewed and are struggling with health and safety concerns.

Private sponsors agree to support refugees for 12 months after they arrive, which typically involves helping families with food, housing and other support, including medical and dental care.

Senate Report on Refugees Hits the Mark

canada4refugeeslogo
Canada4Refugees broadly and enthusiastically supports the recommendations made this week by the Human Rights Committee of the Senate, aimed at better meeting the needs of refugees coming to Canada.

The report outlines the way forward for the Trudeau government on issues relating to refugees: better support for private refugee sponsor groups; shorter processing times for refugee claims; greater transparency by government and better support for refugees already arrived in Canada.

The committee’s report says government-assisted refugees (GARs) currently receive inadequate financial and social supports. It also says that settlement agencies claim to be underfunded, with the result that services to assist refugees’ success in Canada are too limited.

The Senate Committee also recommends that the federal government pay refugees’ airfares to Canada, rather than requiring refugee families to start their life in Canada thousands of dollars in debt. Canada4Refugees has advocated this position since the government stopped paying airfares for refugees earlier year.

The report notes that many sponsorship groups are frustrated because the Syrian refugees they are sponsoring have not arrived after many months of waiting, and also by reports that the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) department agrees that the `demand’ by sponsorship groups to host refugees “significantly exceeds supply.”

The chair of the committee is Senator Jim Munson. The deputy chair is Senator Salma Ataullahjan.

The full report is here: Senate Committee Report.

Canada4Refugees will be writing to the government and members of the Parliamentary Committee to push for the quick adoption of these recommendations.

We urge sponsor groups to write their Members of Parliament, asking them to support the recommendations and also indicate their support to Mr. McCallum.

Titled `Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story’, the Senate report reiterates many of the problems sponsorship groups have been pressing for months. It proposes a dozen reasonable recommendations, which the government should enact right away.

Among the committee’s recommendations:

  • The IRCC should improve processing times and be more transparent about processing of refugees.
  • More resources should be provided to settlement agencies and programs such as ESL (and child care for those participating in ESL), for youth and for mental health needs.
  • The government should provide better support for sponsor groups, both those wishing to choose refugee families for resettlement, and those wishing to help so-called Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) refugees, which are assigned to sponsor groups by the government.
  • The government should cover transportation costs rather than requiring refugees to pay them.
  • Programs to keep extended refugee families united should be improved.

(On the same day the report was released, IRCC Minister John McCallum announced that the time for family re-unification of non-refugees will be cut from 24 months to 12 months, and the re-unification guide will shrink from 150 to 75 pages. No similar measures have been announced for refugees seeking to keep their extended families together.)

raysewellsig
John Sewell for
Canada4Refugees.org
john@johnsewell.ca