Syrian refugee in Edmonton creates business opportunity with specialty nut store

Click to play video: 'Syrian refugee opens food business in north Edmonton'
Syrian refugee opens food business in north Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: Sponsors brought a Syrian refugee and his family to Edmonton just 18 months ago. Since then, they've not only adjusted to life in the city but also opened a store in the north end. Julia Wong has more – Sep 2, 2018

A Syrian refugee in Edmonton has defied the expectations of his sponsor group and opened up a specialty nut store in the north part of the city, a mere 18 months after first arriving in Canada.

Emad Alqitta, 35, used to own a store in Damascus, Syria, that sold roasted nuts. He had to leave that behind when his wife, four children and he fled the war-plagued country for Jordan.

Alqitta said he didn’t know anything about Canada, only what he saw in the movies. Then, a year and a half ago, a group of friends in Edmonton decided to work together to bring Alqitta and his family to Alberta’s capital city.

READ MORE: Syrian refugee finds success and a new home in Calgary

“I thought I cannot live in this country one month because it’s very cold,” Alqitta said jokingly, though he said it was -34C when the family arrived at the Edmonton International Airport.

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Sponsors welcoming Alqitta and his family to Edmonton. Courtesy/Julie Rohr
Alqitta and his family after arriving in Edmonton. Courtesy/Julie Rohr
Alqitta and his family at the ice castles. Courtesy/Julie Rohr

“There’s definitely been an adjustment period for them and their family being here,” said sponsor Julie Rohr.

As Alqitta and his family adjusted to their new life, Rohr said she and the other sponsors asked what type of work he was interested in.

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“He said, ‘Well, I’d love to open a store for roasted nuts and coffee.’ We thought that’s very nice and ambitious,” she said with a smile.

“Maybe we should start small. Start at farmers markets or wait a few years until you get your feet under you.”

RELATED: Recent refugees face unique challenges with business ventures in Canada

But Alqitta’s ambition couldn’t be tempered and soon the wheels were in motion. He started roasting nuts at home in a toaster oven; soon word of his roasted nuts spread and he was looking for a storefront.

“We, as a sponsor group, were very reluctant and cautious. At every turn, [Alqitta] was very excited about this new venture. We would say things like, ‘There’s so much red tape here, so much certification you need to have. There’s a lot more to opening a store probably than there was in Syria,’” Rohr said.

Alqitta defied the odds and in mid-August, he opened up a store in north Edmonton with special roasting machines he imported from Jordan.

“I am very excited because I opened the store. I have a store to sell nuts fresh to everyone,” he said.

Rohr said Alqitta’s accomplishment in the short time he has been in Canada is “amazing.”

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READ MORE: 2 years in, Syrian refugees are adjusting to life in B.C. but still face challenges: report

“I’ve been really impressed by [Alqitta’s] drive… and to be self-sufficient and to be giving back,” she said.

“I think it says a lot about his determination and about his will to succeed here in a country that was completely foreign to him 18 months ago.

“Canadians may have different opinions about refugee families and how much they contribute to society or how much they take from society. I think it’s really important to show the stories of success and giving back to this country and wanting to be a vital part of the community and a vital part of the economy.”

As for Alqitta, he is focused on his business and making it successful, and he said the experience has taught him a lot about his new home.

“Canada [is a] great country in this world because we are here now, because Canada gave us help to come here.”

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