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How a Syrian refugee family with no prospects became entrepreneurs after moving to California

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BERKELEY, Calif.—With 30 days’ notice, the Rawas family were plucked from their temporary home in Jordan, where they’d fled the Syrian civil war, and resettled in Oakland, Calif.

As refugees, they knew no one, had no job prospects and didn’t speak a word of English.

From left, Rawaa Kasedah, daughter Batool Rawoas and husband Mohammed Aref Rawas, at their kiosk on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.
From left, Rawaa Kasedah, daughter Batool Rawoas and husband Mohammed Aref Rawas, at their kiosk on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.  (Anda Chu / Bay Area News Group)

Three years later, Mohammed Aref Rawas, Rawaa Kasedah and their four children are running a budding catering business that serves authentic Syrian food such as smoked basmati rice, falafel and fattoush salad. They’ve hired their first employee. Their clients include big tech companies. And the days when starting over seemed impossible are far behind them.

They are among a large population of refugees who, after fleeing a homeland overrun by violence and political turmoil, started a business, integrating quickly into the economy and life of a new country. The family’s entrepreneurial approach is common among immigrants, studies show.

An estimated 11 per cent of all Syrian immigrants in the U.S. labour force are business owners — nearly four times the rate of U.S.-born business owners, according to a study by the New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. A significant part of that success has been the ability to master the English language, the report said.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study by the institute that followed Bosnian, Burmese, Hmong and Somali refugees found that they, too, moved up the occupational ladder and started businesses after settling in the U.S. Thirty-one out of every 1,000 Bosnian refugees in the labour force are business owners, as are 26 out of 1,000 Burmese, 22 out of 1,000 Hmong, and 15 out of 1,000 Somalis, the study found.

“There’s a hunger for dignified work,” said Thane Kreiner, executive director of the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University.

Kreiner launched an accelerator program known as Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins, which assists businesses and organizations around the world that are run by refugees, migrants or victims of human trafficking.

The Rawas family started Old Damascus Fare last year. Rawas had owned a successful clothing factory in Syria, where he oversaw about 50 employees. The family lived comfortably in a suburb in their native Damascus.

But increasing gunfire, kidnappings and the presence of military groups forced them to leave, and their temporary escape to Jordan in 2012 lasted until they immigrated to the U.S. in 2015.

More than 500,000 Syrians have died and nearly 6 million have fled during a civil war that began seven years ago with an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

After the Rawas family settled into the Bay Area, new friends and acquaintances in the Arab community asked Kasedah to cater birthday parties and other events. Soon they were catering events for area tech companies, including Facebook and LinkedIn.

“We got to the point where we realized it’s not only about food,” said Batool Rawoas, one of the couple’s daughters. “We are making new friends, we are hearing about new opportunities. It’s a way to share our culture with the people here.”

The family admit they’re still struggling. Their expenses regularly exceed their income, and they’re overwhelmed by the painstaking details of operating a business.

“The main challenge for any refugee family is navigating how to survive in the Bay Area because it’s so expensive,” said Rawoas, who is attending community college and hopes to transfer to a four-year university to study psychology and public health.

“We lived in Syria, we were from the middle class and we had a very comfortable life. We owned our own house, our own land,” she said. “But we’re hoping, in the future, this will be a good thing to support us financially.”

Because refugees like the Rawas often have to reinvent their lives, that makes them resilient entrepreneurs, said David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, which resettled the family three years ago.

“In a way, being a refugee, having to flee for your life, having to figure out who to trust, having to figure out new ways of survival … there could hardly be a more effective job-training program,” he said.

“Those qualities of co-operation, determination, courage, trust are important for any entrepreneur.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Victoria real estate agent disciplined for false advertising, encouraging cash deal to avoid taxes

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A Victoria real estate agent is facing $9,000 in fines and a 60-day licence suspension after breaking several professional rules during the sale of her father’s half-million-dollar property, according to a decision by the Real Estate Council of B.C. 

Whitney Garside’s missteps — outlined this week in a disciplinary decision posted on the council’s website — included falsely advertising the property as being almost twice its actual size and advising the buyer they could avoid the property transfer tax if they paid cash directly to the seller.

The property on Burnett Road in Victoria was being sold in 2016 by the real estate agent’s father. That relationship was disclosed and isn’t among the reasons she has been disciplined.

According to the disciplinary consent order, Garside told the buyer — whose name is redacted — that by paying $42,000 cash on the side, the value of the property could be reduced to avoid paying the property transfer tax.

That cash arrangement was not shared with Garside’s brokerage, Re/Max Camosun, a failure that contravened the Real Estate Services Act.

The council also ruled that she “failed to act honestly and with reasonable care and skill” when she advised the buyer the property transfer tax could be avoided by paying cash directly to the seller. 

The council’s discipline committee also found that Garside committed professional misconduct when she failed to recommend the seller and buyer seek independent legal advice, specifically regarding the property transfer tax and the cash agreement.

Another issue the council considered professional misconduct involved the size of the property in question.

The council ruled that Garside published false and misleading advertising and failed to act with reasonable care and skill when the property was advertised as 8,712 square feet, when in fact a portion of the lot belonged to the Ministry of Transportation, and the actual size was just 4,711 square feet.

The discipline committee ordered Garside’s licence be suspended for 60 days, which will be completed Jan. 3, 2021.

She has also been ordered to complete real estate ethics and remedial classes at her own expense.

Garside was also fined $7,500 as a disciplinary penalty and $1,500 in enforcement expenses.

She agreed to waive her right to appeal the council’s discipline committee’s decision in September.

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Frisco apartment community sells to Canadian investor

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A Canada-based investor has purchased a Frisco apartment community as part of a larger Texas deal.

The 330-unit Satori Frisco apartments opened last year on Research Road in Frisco.

BSR Real Estate Investment Trust bought the four-story rental community that was built by Atlanta-based Davis Development.

Satori Frisco was more than 90% leased at the time of sale. The property includes a two-story fitness center, a car care center, a dog park and a resort-style swimming pool.

The Frisco property sold along with Houston’s Vale luxury apartments in a deal valued at $129 million.

“BSR recently exited the smaller Beaumont and Longview, Texas, markets and also sold noncore properties in other markets,” John Bailey, BSR’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We are now using our strong liquidity position to invest in Vale and Satori Frisco, modern communities in core growth markets with the amenities our residents desire.”

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House prices on Prince Edward Island continue steady climb

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Residential real estate prices on Prince Edward Island continue to climb at a rate higher than the national average, according to the latest report from a national organization. 

The Canadian Real Estate Association released monthly figures for November 2020 on Tuesday.

They show that the average price for a resale home on P.E.I. is about 21 per cent higher than it was a year earlier. 

Only Quebec had a bigger year-over-year increase, at about 23 per cent. Overall across Canada, prices were up 13.8 per cent year over year in the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For the fifth straight month, year-over-year sales activity was up in almost all Canadian housing markets compared to the same month in 2019,” the report noted.

“Meanwhile, an ongoing shortage of supply of homes available for purchase across most of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces means sellers there hold the upper hand in sales negotiations.”

That lack of houses coming onto the market compared to the demand means that in those provinces, there is “increased competition among buyers for listings and … fertile ground for price gains.”

There have been anecdotal reports for months that Prince Edward Island’s low rate of COVID-19 infection and looser rules around social activities have been encouraging people to buy homes on the Island. 

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