By Brandon Gillet
Telfer MBA student Kevin Smiley has started a company inspired and run by Syrian refugees to help them resettle in Ottawa.
SuraiTea is a company that produces loose-leaf tea that is scented with Jasmine blossoms, Syria’s unofficial national flower. The start-up employs recently arrived Syrian refugees to package and market the tea, and aims to donate a portion of the proceeds to non-profits active in local resettlement efforts.
“I was closely following the refugee crisis,” Smiley said. “I thought I could use my skills to do something, as I thought business could help.”
After some research, Smiley learned about the cultural significance of the jasmine flower in Syria. Damascus is known as the City of Jasmine.
“I also found out that jasmine is a high-value tea, so I had a eureka moment: to set up a tea business and employ the refugees as they arrive,” Smiley said.
The tea is sourced from around the world, and mixed by a tea sommelier in Ontario. It is then shipped to Surai-Tea in Ottawa, where Syrian refugees package it. But the jobs for the newcomers are not limited to simply packaging; some of the refugees with specific skills have been hired in sales and administrative positions.
For example, Husam Al Dakhil is an executive assistant with the company who was enrolled in an economics program in Syria before leaving his native country for Lebanon in 2015 and arriving in Ottawa in February. He was in his final year at the University of Damascus when regular mortar and rocket attacks made attending university too dangerous for students to stay.
“I’ve met some important people here and attended many events and made connections,” Al Dakhil said. “I now have some knowledge of financial statements and reports, and have gained some experience in my university field.”
Helping Syrians gain a foothold
Coming to Canada is only half the battle: refugees also need time, and assistance from many quarters, to adjust to their new lives.
Louisa Taylor, director of the umbrella organization Refugee613, is helping to bring groups together to maximize resettlement efforts in Ottawa. Taylor and Refugee613 helped Smiley connect with refugees to start the business.
“Kevin is incredibly motivated and dedicated,” she said. “He has the spirit to have real community impact.”
Local resettlement efforts are in full swing, but Taylor says that refugees are facing two major hurdles: language and employment. While there are many planned social events and job fairs springing up, there is not quite enough funding for language training.
“This need for funding also comes in the form of childcare,” Taylor said. “It has a great impact on who learns English, in that mothers caring for their children get left behind.”
She says initiatives like Surai-Tea can make an immense difference, and that Smiley is a great example of someone who sees the value that refugees bring to the Canadian economy.
“People often don’t think of refugees as possible employees. In fact, they have a lot of skills and are highly motivated,” Taylor said. “I’m proud of my city, proud of my country, to be able to do so much so soon. It’s a lot of work and can be messy at times, but it’s great to bring so many here safely.”
Gateway to Canadian life
For his part, Smiley hopes Surai-Tea will become a gateway for Syrians into Canadian life.
“The idea is that it will be a stepping stone into the Canadian economy,” he said. “For example, we have one worker who has experience in accounting but she doesn’t speak English. So we want to be a way to bridge the gap for her to get an accounting job once she learns English.”
Smiley met one family who had been successful olive farmers in Syria, but had to abruptly leave when artillery began shelling their farm.
“They packed up what they could carry and walked for 20 days,” he said. “Now they are living in a modest apartment shared among six or seven people.”
The family had also owned a construction supply store, which Smiley said speaks to how successful and productive they were before their livelihood was violently torn from them.
“I think it’s a story worth telling, and shows how fragile these things can be,” Smiley said. “The stereotypes some people have of immigrants are not true, so hopefully we’re giving them an avenue to become just as productive here.”
Smiley already has expansion in mind, and is in talks with DAVIDs TEA and Whole Foods in the U.S. He is commissioning a Syrian artist to provide artwork for the next round of advertising and is also looking at new tea recipes that could raise awareness of and assist other humanitarian causes in Canada and around the world.
To date, Surai-Tea has reached one third of its goal of donating $5000 to non-profits “that are helping resettle the very refugees that we hired to package the tea and sell it,” Smiley said.
“Tea already is a really meaningful thing, which kind of brings people together,” he said. “So it’s about the tea, but it’s also about what this tea represents, which is the idea of someone having their first shot at a life here in Canada.”