Syrian refugee family given chance at 'Canadian dream' by former refugee, now Vancouver entrepreneur

Karina Hayat, a former refugee turned multimillion-dollar Vancouver entrepreneur, is sponsoring a Syrian family to give them a chance at what she calls the 'Canadian dream.'

'We only live one life and we have to give back while we're still here,' says Karina Hayat

Karina Hayat is a successful entrepreneur in Vancouver who was once a refugee. She wanted to give back so she is now privately sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. (CBC News)

Over the last decade, Karina Hayat has built a multimillion-dollar online marketing company, but when she arrived in Vancouver as a young girl more than 20 years ago, she didn't even speak English.

"That was the biggest shock," recalled Hayat, whose parents brought the family to Canada as political refugees, fleeing the civil war in Guatemala in 1991.

"We didn't have any family here so it was just the six of us. We only had each other."

At 11 years old, Hayat said it felt like she was starting a new life. 

"I think the biggest challenge is the fact that you essentially are writing off your entire past — you're starting from scratch, you lose your identity. Even as an 11-year-old, I lost my identity."

Hayat says the first few years in Vancouver were the toughest, as she watched her parents struggle to find work in their trained fields of teaching and nursing. 

"One of the big things that I was able to bring with me from Guatemala was just the work ethic my parents taught me," she said.

"I worked my butt off to learn English. I think it took me about six months. I was speaking the language — at least communicating effectively and translating for my parents."

Living the 'Canadian dream'

As Hayat continued with her education in Canada, she launched her own marketing company with her husband Zeeshan, who also immigrated to Canada as a child. 

"We started our business back in 2001 when we were going to college. I remember I was working two part-time jobs and had a singing gig, my husband as well was working two part-time jobs and we were building this business."

That business — Prizm Media — now employs 20 people in Vancouver and has 150 contractors around the world. 

It has won several awards, including being named one of Canada's fastest growing marketing companies. Both Karina and Zeeshan Hayat have been named in Business in Vancouver's top 40 under 40.

Hayat said her success is the "Canadian dream."

"I think Canada gives you so much opportunity and so much support," she said.

'We only live one life'

Now, the Vancouver woman who says Canada took a chance on her, is giving back, hoping to give someone else the same opportunity to realize their dreams. The Hayats are privately sponsoring a Syrian refugee family.

The Hayat family is privately sponsoring a Syrian refugee family to come to Vancouver. Karina (top right) is a former refugee and her husband Zeeshan also came to Canada as a child. (CBC News)

"People are scared about what sort of things are they going to come with  what sort of problems they're going to bring to the country, but I think the biggest thing we have to look at, we always have to be positive and see what is the potential, what is the potential these people can bring into the country?"

"Two of my other siblings are [also] entrepreneurs, my other sister is a teacher as well. We're giving back, we're paying taxes, we're contributing, we're making a difference in people's lives everyday."

Hayat says the decision to sponsor a refugee family was simple.

"We only live one life and we have to give back while we're still here... We don't know how long we're gonna give, so this is the time," she said.

"We're hoping this family will be able to integrate as quickly as possible into the country. [We hope] that we'll be able to give them a hand and hopefully have them be an extended part of our family."

Hayat says her three children are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the refugee family, expected sometime in January.

"They're just absolutely excited — they wanted to adopt children, so they can share their room with them."

About the Author

Bal Brach

@BalBrach

Bal Brach is an award-winning reporter at CBC News Vancouver. She has more than a decade of experience working in television, radio and online news across Canada. Bal's storytelling skills have earned her a Jack Webster Award. She is also the recipient of regional and national Radio Television Digital News Association awards. Bal can be reached at Bal.Brach@cbc.ca or on social media @BalBrach

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