By Mohamed Al-Baghdadi
As a father of five daughters and an immigrant to Canada from a war-torn country, I wanted to find a business that could not only provide for me, but also be a career opportunity for my children. After nearly four years as a Williams Fresh Cafe franchisee in Waterloo, Ont., I am happy to say I’ve found my dream. It was a long road to get here, but looking back and seeing my family is well taken care of has made it all worthwhile.
From factory owner to refugee
I was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, during a time when the city was much more peaceful and hopeful than it is now. When I was a child, I loved playing soccer and hanging out with my friends. As a teenager, I earned my high school diploma while always thinking about what I could do for a living out in the ‘real world.’
My dad had a clothing store and it seemed pretty natural for me to go work for him at a young age. I did all kinds of things there, from serving customers to stocking the inventory to cleaning up in and around the shop.
After a few years of watching my father run his business and learning the ins and outs of what it took to run a store, I thought I could go out on my own and do the same thing. I spent some time looking for the best location. It had to be not too far from my home, somewhere with a lot of walk-by traffic and, of course, affordable.
With my dad’s support, I opened up my own clothing store at the tender age of 15! It was tough at the beginning and I ended up changing the concept from clothing in general to men’s shoes in particular. This way, I wasn’t in competition with my father, which made discussions at the dinner table a little more comfortable.
After running my first business, seeing the reactions of my customers and studying what other shoe stores were doing, I saw an opportunity to expand with more locations across the city. I opened a few more at first and eventually grew the network to nine stores.
Next, I started looking at the supply side of the business and questioning why I should pay someone else to provide shoes when I could manufacture them myself instead. With nine stores, I felt, I could ensure enough demand for this option to make good business sense.
I saved up all of the money I made at the stores and built my first factory. It was a simple but effective operation. I sourced materials locally and hired great shoemakers. As demand continued to grow and the facility reached its manufacturing capacity, I invested in a second factory. It was a bit of a risk, but I was confident I could sell enough shoes across my stores to keep two factories running.
The nine stores and two factories took 25 years of me working to build up. Things were going great. There was a steady stream of customers coming in and both factories were usually working at full capacity.
Then everything took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2003 with the onset of the Iraq War. As business suffered, I started to pull back and fear for the safety of my family. It was not an easy decision, but with five children to care for and support and the outlook for the war looking very bad, my wife and
I decided it would be best to live somewhere else.
We needed to leave quickly and there weren’t a lot of options at the time. At first, we moved to and took refuge in Jordan. As an Iraqi, unfortunately, I was not allowed to work there, but I knew I was doing the right thing for my family in the middle of incredibly challenging times. We were safe and that was the most important thing.
After eventually realizing (a) we were not going to get to return home and (b) staying in Jordan was not going to allow me to support my family, I started to research which other countries would make sense for us. I had relatives in Canada, so it was a relatively easier path to emigrate there. In 2007, we moved to Kitchener, Ont., which borders Waterloo.