Raphael M. was one of our refugee panelists for Our Story, the World Refugee Day Event. In celebration of and solidarity with Pride Month, we asked Raphael a few questions about his story, his experience coming to Canada, and his new business.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your experience in Lebanon and your journey to Canada?
I had two lives in Lebanon. The first life, I faced society, family & friends with. I was very successful in Lebanon, with a very good career path, and my own apartment. I had finished a master’s degree in computer engineering and was fully self-sustained.
The other life was hidden, and I had to struggle with it every day. It kept me from getting too close to anyone because LGBTQ+ individuals are still penalized and thrown to jail just for being who they are and who they love. Eventually, the government picked up on my sexual identity, and in one day, I had lost my job, my savings, my apartment, and was receiving death threats from family members and trusted friends. Fearing for the worst, I packed a bag and fled to Turkey, where I stayed with my partner that has also fled the war in Syria. We both applied as asylum seekers with the UNHCR. After around 2 and a half years, we were granted asylum in Canada, as we couldn’t live out our lives in Turkey either.
Q: What challenges have you faced in Canada, socially or economically?
At first everything was challenging and ordering a cup of coffee was extremely stressful. We had no contacts here and had no idea where we were going. We stayed at the Welcome Centre while we looked for a place to live.
Imagine being asked about a credit score to find an apartment when you’ve just landed with only a bag of some of your favourite clothes and some tokens of things you hold on to that remind you of who you were.
Socially, it was very challenging, as the word “refugee” carries a very negative connotation in Canadian society. People told us “no, we don’t take refugees”, or “you’re wasting taxpayers’ money”, so our accommodation was dependent on the kindness of the individuals who were welcoming. Economically, especially here in Vancouver, the assistance provided by the government is insufficient for the cost of a small basement apartment. All the assistance we were receiving was going directly to the landlord. Finding a job was also very challenging as everyone required Canadian work experience.
Q: Can you tell us about how you started your business?
As it got more frustrating to get a job, we decided to do what we know best, entrepreneurship. In Turkey, we met many artisans and refugees who did amazing work, so we decided to start a collaborative that allows us to provide them with the needed materials and buy their products to support them. We went to multiple organizations and, after endless back and forth, Vancity & BDC joined hands to provide us with a loan to start the business.
We sell scarves & shawls embroidered by Syrian Refugee Women (our selected family), handmade shoes made by our friend in Gaziantep, Turkey, clothing by our lesbian friends, and jewellery by the kindest artisan in Turkey. We teamed up together to start this collaboration, celebrating colours, arts, and handcraft. This is what led us to use the name MAWLANA , since it is an acronym for Jalal al-din Rumi and his famous quote: what you seek is seeking you.
Q: Where can we find your business online and in person?
You can find our brick and mortar store in Vancouver, BC, on Granville Island: 1670 Duranleau Street. Our items are available on our online store (www.mawlana.ca) and we ship locally & internationally. You can also follow us on Facebook & Instagram.