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Refugee in the Blood

Refugee in the Blood

 
 German Jewish refugees sail to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis. Photo credit:  Newsela

German Jewish refugees sail to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis.
Photo credit: Newsela

 

"Tell me about your grandparents."

This request came during a conversation over slices of Saskatoon pie with dear friends of ours and partners in the work that we are doing. We had just been sharing about our vision to pioneer a work in the Middle East that uses coffee as a way to provide employment and training for those who have been displaced by the tragedies of war in their region.

"My grandparents are German and were immigrants to Canada shortly after World War II," I replied. "They came over on a ship and settled down in Southern Alberta."

Our host sat back for a second and then asked, "Were they sugarbeet farmers?"

They were, in fact. Our host went on to explain that many Germans became sugarbeet farmers to sustain themselves shortly after arriving in Alberta.

"That makes sense then why you are going to the Middle East!" Our host responded. "Your willingness to step into the unknown and pioneer a work is in large part because that is what your grandparents did all those decades ago. Those traits were passed down to you."

I had never thought of this before. Is it really true that there is a connection between my grandparents' experience in the mid-20th century and what I am drawn to in 2018? Of course, I am aware that personality traits are often passed down and the genetics piece makes sense to me. But that our experiences are passed down as well, including what we choose to do in response to our outside circumstances; this was a new realization for me.

 
 German sugar beet farmers.  Photo credit:  Greeley History Museum

German sugar beet farmers. 
Photo credit: Greeley History Museum

 

In January of 2017, in the middle of a very sweet season of life in Manila with great friends and a new, growing business, Christine and I felt compelled to leave all of it behind to move to the Middle East and help refugees. At the time, I couldn't really understand why I was drawn to that sort of work; I just was. For this past year, as we have moved out of the Philippines and spent time in Canada and the US preparing to move to Turkey, we have gotten many opportunities to sit in my grandmother's living room and listen to her stories. Stories of the war, life in Germany and Ukraine, how she met my grandfather, and the story of her journey on the ship to Canada. As we flipped through old photo albums, we even realized that my grandparents' fashion is quickly coming back in style.

During our time looking in those albums, we came across a photo of my grandparents standing in front of a sign that said "Refugee Center." My grandparents were refugees?!? For some reason, we had always just used the term 'immigrant' and never refugee in reference to them. Seeing this sign for the first time brought me to another important realization, I was not only compelled towards the Middle East because my grandparents were pioneers, it was also because they themselves were refugees.  

As we have learned about the three million refugees living in Turkey, we have also learned that many Turks see them as a burden on society. They feel that the refugees are not really contributing anything and taking handouts. I have to admit, I've had the same assumption from time to time. But last week I came across a report that has remarkable relevance for our future work. A report titled "Another Side of the Story" was, interestingly enough,  funded in part by the Government of Canada and was written by an NGO based in New York called Building Markets. The focus of the report is on small and medium businesses that have been started up by Syrian refugees in Turkey. These businesses generally employ many other Syrian refugees as well as Turks. The 64-page report includes data on how many Syrian businesses there are in Turkey, what the entrepreneurs have gone through to set them up, and what Syrian entrepreneurs need the most in order to grow and expand existing businesses and  start new ones. Each page of the report is fascinating for me because it has so much relevance for what we are looking to do with the coffee business. If you have the time, you can read the report here. Here are some key points that stood out the most to me: 

  • There are over 6,000 Syrian companies registered with the Turkish chamber of commerce. It is estimated that these businesses have added 1.5 billion to 2 billion USD of Syrian capital to the Turkish economy over the past three and a half years. 

  • Syrian entrepreneurs are creating jobs. On average, they employ 9.4 people and report that most of their employees were previously working in the informal sector. Over half (55 percent) of Syrian businesses state they will hire additional employees over the coming year (8.2 on average).

  • Syrian entrepreneurs are committed to Turkey: 39 percent plan to start another business in Turkey, and even after the war ends, 76 percent intend to keep their businesses in Turkey while also expanding to Syria.

  • Syrian business owners overwhelmingly identified the need for training in the areas of marketing, customer service, import-export laws, and management.

  • Qualities such as resilience and persistence that help immigrants thrive in a new country are also conducive to entrepreneurship.

This last point sounded very familiar to me. It caused me to think back to my grandparents. They didn't remain as sugar beet farmers forever. Once they saved up enough money, they opened up their own business, a shoe repair company. Through their business, they provided a valuable service to the community, sourced goods locally, and paid taxes that fed back into the economy. According to this report, it seems that it was partly because of my grandparents' experience as refugees that they were able to establish and sustain such a viable business; and Canada was better for it.

Like the title of the report, Christine and I hope that we will be able to help people to see another side of the story. We hope that the Turkish people as well as foreigners would understand the positive contributions that refugee communities can have on their society. It is our desire that through our business initiative, we would be able to join others in finding ways to provide refugees with the right skills, resources, and opportunities to help them succeed; not only in providing for their family, but also as they seek the welfare of the cities where they live.

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