By Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News Posted: Apr 20, 2016 5:30 AM ET Last Updated: Apr 21, 2016 6:35 AM ET
A startup company founded by a University of Ottawa student hopes to help Syrian refugees settle in the community by giving them their first job experience in Canada, while also raising money for settlement efforts.
SuraiTea Inc. launched its online store last weekend, specializing in traditional Syrian jasmine tea. It's the brainchild of local MBA student Kevin Smiley.
"It's a tea packaging business where we have two main goals, and that's to create jobs for recently arrived Syrian refugees, and additionally we also hope to establish a sustainable source of corporate donations to the not-for-profits that are helping resettle them," he said.
Smiley came up with the idea over the winter when he took part in a startup challenge through his program at the University of Ottawa. He had been following the Syrian refugee crisis since the fall, and ongoing efforts to resettle them here in Canada.
"I had this kind of desire to use my skills to do my part, that was kind of a Eureka moment where I said, 'Well I think I can do something here,'" he added.
Smiley found a wholesale tea supplier in Toronto, then reached out to World Skills Employment Centre, an Ottawa organization that employs recently arrived immigrants and refugees.
The organization provided 20 Syrian refugees to work on the project. They helped package 1,000 tins of five different varieties of jasmine tea earlier this month at the Urban Element culinary centre in Hintonburg. Each package of tea retails online for $24.99.
Abduallah Alnassan, who arrived in Ottawa from Syria two months ago, was one of those employees. Through interpreter Bushra Alarim, Alnassan calls it a "wonderful" experience.
"Sharing everything with everybody, and working with everybody, gives him the feeling that he lives at home," said Alarim of Alnassan's experience.
Once the first run of 1,000 tins is sold, $5,000 will be donated to the Salvation Army to help with their settlement efforts, according to Smiley.
He hopes to set up a permanent packaging operation to employ refugees. He also wants to create what he calls a "board of change-makers" to determine where future proceeds will go.
Alarim, who works for the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, believes SuraiTea can be a good model for others looking to employ refugees from Syria.
"It is very important for those Syrian refugees to get to know their Canadian workplace," she said. "This is their first experience with the Canadian workplace. And to get to know the Canadian culture, and rules and policies they follow."