In all the tumult and violence of nearly six years of civil war, Syrians always had a custom that gave moments of respite from the carnage — the sharing of tea among friends.
Here in Ottawa, a young entrepreneur named Kevin Smiley has founded a small company that sells tea to help Syrian refugees find a kind of economic respite in their adopted country.
The company, SuraiTea, packages jasmine-based teas for sale online and in various pop-up locations around the city. The part-time staff are Syrian refugees trying to establish an economic toehold in Canada, to learn English and to develop their own business networks.
“We’re using the power of the market to create positive social change for refugees,” says Smiley. “And it seems to be working — their English is improving, they’re getting a sense of how we conduct business in Canada, and we’re selling a beverage that seems to delight our customers.”
Smiley’s project has won plaudits from the City of Ottawa. At the inaugural Ottawa Social Impact Awards held at the Museum of Nature, Mayor Jim Watson presented an award to the company in honour of its work on behalf of refugees.
“The award was a real validation and reinforced our sense that we’re doing something right,” Smiley says.
Jasmine, the prime ingredient in nearly all of the company’s teas, is very important to Syrians — the country’s unofficial national flower and the main flavouring of a tea that Syrians have been drinking for centuries. The capital city, Damascus, is often called “the city of jasmine.”
The revolution that broke out in Tunisia late in 2010 — the first of several revolts that became known as the Arab Spring — was called the Jasmine Revolution, a name that some people later applied to the broader wave of protest that swept across the Arab world. “Because of the historical importance of jasmine to Syrians and its association with the revolutions, I think jasmine has a particular significance for our refugees,” Smiley says.
The company’s name also evokes connections with Syria. “Surai” was an ancient name for the present-day country and some of the surrounding territory.
After incorporation last March, the company had its initial production run on April 4th, Refugee Rights Day in Canada. Twenty refugees packaged 1,000 units of tea that day and were paid over $2,500 in wages. In mid-April, the company launched its online store and within two days had sold over $2,000 worth of tea.
Most of the employees work only occasionally, but four or five have rather steady part-time work. Most of the work involves packaging and selling.
Smiley's executive assistant, Husam Aldakhil, says his fellow Syrians are learning a lot. “When we were first packaging the tea, we needed a translator to keep the operation running. But now some employees speak well enough to actually sell in English and no translator is needed.” The relatively good wages make for additional positive social impact, Aldakhil says.
Life in Canada is far easier for Aldakhil than the life he left behind in Syria. He was studying economics at the University of Damascus when mortar and rocket attacks made the university an unsafe place to be. In 2015, he left Syria and arrived in Canada early this year. He is now studying English at Algonquin College, has received his Canadian University equivalency, and hopes to soon complete his degree in Canada.
Working with the Ottawa Chinese Community Services Centre, Smiley hopes to soon have a sales training program for his workers. “They will be taught all about making sales in the Canadian context, which will help them in their work with us, but also in any other sales work they undertake.”
Looking ahead, Smiley, an MBA graduate from the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, envisions creating companies to sell teas for the benefit of African immigrants and First Nations people in Canada. “If tea can encourage social change for Syrians, why not for Africans or our own First Nations people, both of whom have traditions of drinking tea?”
515 Legget Dr., Ottawa, Ont.