Canada has welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015 across 350 communities, according to the federal government.
And Surrey has become home to the largest number of Syrian refugees over the past five years, taking in almost half of B.C.’s Syrian refugee population forced to flee their homeland and its six-year civil war. About 1,000 government-assisted refugees have settled in the city.
Feras Nejebagh, who left Syria with his family in 2011, is among them.
Nejebagh is a tailor and has worked in the clothing industry for close to 20 years. He first fled to Turkey with his family, which includes his father, Farouk Najibagha, mother, Hasne Seyhomer, and his older brother and younger sister.
Nejebagh’s focus is on “jilbabs” – long jackets worn by many Muslim women.
Before the civil war started, Nejebagh and his father – who is also a tailor – had a clothing factory and shop in Aleppo, which they had to abandon when Nejebagh fled to nearby Turkey.
Nejebagh and his family stayed five years in Turkey, where he picked up work as a tailor.
He then applied to Canada’s government-assisted program for refugees in 2015, noting in his application that he was a tailor and had health issues. When he found out his family had been accepted to Canada, Nejebagh said, he was overjoyed.
Nejebagh and his entire family left Istanbul to fly to Vancouver mere days after he told his parents they had all been accepted as government-assisted refugees to Canada. They arrived in late 2015.
When asked to describe his reaction when landing in Canada, Nejebagh answers with one word: “astonished.”
Nejebagh reached out to Diverse-City, a Surrey-based community resources society that receives funding from various levels of government. The society first provided Nejebagh and his family with a welcoming grant to help them get set up in Canada. Nejebagh later received training for food services and kitchen work. He also started volunteering for the society to give back to the community. Nejebagh then applied to the society’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Program, representatives of which met with him to determine his skills and career goals.
Nejebagh was eager to pick up the profession he’d pursued in Aleppo, and through the society he was able to sublease a space in north Surrey, start his own business, Feras Fashion Design, in October, and bring his father into the company. He has already received multiple orders for work and is helping out another clothing store within the same space with tailoring and alterations.
“This is our family history,” he said, holding his hand over his chest. “This is my passion; it’s in my blood. Since I was a kid I always liked to draw sketches of clothing.”
Translator Nizar Al-Ashkar, who works for DiverseCity, said Nejebagh was originally selling clothes out of his house, but he found it difficult to break into the local market.
“He didn’t know how to price or how to distribute or what kind of services he could tell people that he offers.”
Florence Kao, an employment specialist in self-employment and microloans for DiverseCity, said a big part of helping Nejebagh start his business was a $500 grant to buy a sewing machine.
“Later on he also won a $1,000 grant to buy a second sewing machine,” she added. “So that was instrumental in helping him reach his full potential.”
Nejebagh, who plans on becoming a Canadian citizen along with his family, said he loves Canada and is already a fan of the Vancouver Canucks.
“The blue team,” he said with a smile. “I like them.”