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5 former refugees who built successful businesses in Canada

When war, violence and political censorship begin to affect your course for survival and destroy everything you love, abandoning your home to find another is all you’ve got. But when it takes you to an entirely new place with a language and culture you don’t understand, finding the right resources to start over may take a lot longer. These five refugees, despite their obstacles, have paved their way to entrepreneurial success to give back exactly what they lost.

Kameel Nasrawi and his wife Arji pose in front of a desk with a computer and copies of their Syrian and Arab newspaper, The Migrant.

(Arij and Kameel Nasrawi. Photo courtesy: Kameel Nasrawi)

Kameel Nasrawi

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but for former Syrian journalist and award-winning screenwriter, Kameel Nasrawi, withstanding the war and violence in Damascus was no longer an option. So he decided to move his life and family overseas, where he established Canada’s first Syrian and Arab community newspaper, The Migrant.

As a newly settled refugee back in 2016 with his wife, Arij, and two children, he had nothing but his savings — but Nasrawi felt it was his mission to help inspire other refugees after having endured many difficulties with language barriers. This is why in each monthly issue of The Migrant there are two pages featuring newcomer and citizenship-savvy programs to assist the community with successful integration. For Kameel and Arij, who edit the newspaper from their home in Etobicoke, Ont., solely featuring news and success stories within Canada continues to be their main priority — they want to foster hope and inspiration within the community.

The Migrant has featured familiar faces that you’ve probably heard of like the Nova Scotia-based father-son chocolatier duo Tareq and Assan Hadhad, and the owners of Canada’s first Syrian soap factory, Aleppo Savon.

The Hadhad family poses outside their factory for Peace by Chocolate.

(The Hadhad family. Photo courtesy: Tareq Hadhad)

Tareq Hadhad

In 2012, the Hadhad family’s chocolate factory was bombed in Damascus, Syria. It took Tareq Hadhas’s arrival in Antigonish, N.S., and its supportive community to ignite the family’s passion all over again.

Starting out small in local Antigonish markets, hundreds of people would line up, eager to taste what their recipe could offer. Peace by Chocolate received overwhelming support by local community members and councillors volunteering their time to help out. And to show their gratitude, Tareq and his family donated all profits to relief efforts during the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

Hadhad was featured in The Migrant — which reached over 114,000 people on social media — but the company took an even bigger shift when it received major props for its sweets by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a speech for the United Nations Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in 2016.

The Hadhad family is currently transforming their store into a museum and are working on a book that will reveal the full story behind the making of Peace by Chocolate.

The owners of Aleppo Savon, Abdul Fatah Sabouni, Husny Hadry and Walid Bashra, pose next to their soaps.

(Walid Balsha, Husny Hadry, and Abdul Fatah Sabouni. Photo credit: Leah Hennel)

Abdul Fatah Sabouni

Abdul Fatah Sabouni is a fourth-generation soap maker who continues to build on his family’s 125 years (and counting) of soap-making expertise. After the family’s Aleppo, Syria, soap factory was destroyed, he fled to Calgary a few years later with his family and started Aleppo Savon alongside his business partners Husny Hadry and Walid Bashra. The trio have recently launched their retail outlet in Calgary where you can by their GMO-free coconut and olive oil-based products. As they continue to take steps to expand their brand beyond the factory and retail store, their soaps can now be found in Sobeys (Royal Oak location) in Calgary.

Oh, and did we mention Abdul’s last name also means soap maker?

Karina and Zeeshan Hayat pose back-to-back.

(Karina and Zeeshan Hayat. Photo courtesy: Karina Hayat)

Karina Hayat

When Karina and her family arrived in Vancouver from Guatemala as political refugees more than 20 years ago, she applied the hard-working qualities that her father inspired in her to build what is now a multimillion-dollar online marketing company, Prizm Media. Karina started her business back in 2001 with her husband, Zeeshan Hayat, when they were just 22-years-old, working from their basement using Excel sheets to document their data and analytics. As the company grew substantially with the help of programs like SR&ED (Scientific research; Experimental development run by the National Research Council Canada), they were able to write off any additional taxes, which enabled them to build a lead management team and collaborate with larger healthcare and medical brands.

Mindful of the opportunity that was given to her to realize her success, Karina hopes to give others the same opportunity as she launches the FIT-Youth program, an employment program for immigrant IT graduates under 30.

James Madhier smiles for a pose.

(James Madhier. Photo credit: Kris Graves)

James Madhier

Conflict over scarce resources and the lack of solutions back in South Sudan led James to create his non-profit development organization, Rainmaker Enterprise. For James, the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Student Refugee Program brought him to Canada, where he currently studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in the Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies program.

With the help of a social enterprise competition he won back in 2016, James was able to fully pursue his idea of implementing a solar powered irrigation system throughout South Sudan. To foster peace and security, James wants to develop farmland rich in resources like livestock and clean water, as the lack of these resources has been the main cause of conflict within communities in South Sudan. He’s aiming to make it as local as possible by providing volunteer placement programs to empower and instill ownership within South Sudan’s farming communities.

Abigail Murta is a Toronto-based journalist who writes human interest stories focusing on social change, arts and culture. She is a graduate from Ryerson University's School of Journalism, and you'll likely find her out and about listening to a podcast or scouring the city for the next best second-hand treasure.