Photo credit: Marielle Segarra/Marketplace
Thirteen-year-old Obay Saidee sits on his living room couch in Brooklyn, taking part in an American pastime: daydreaming about what he’s going be when he grows up. A basketball player? A musician? A superhero?
Nope. A dentist. With his own practice.
It’s not the flashiest of career choices. But Obay, who moved from Damascus, Syria to Brooklyn with his family in 2012 because of the war, wants to be his own boss. He said it’s a Syrian tradition. “People in Syria have a certain pride that they don't like working for others,” he said.
Obay would be one of many Syrian entrepreneurs in the United States. Eleven percent of Syrian immigrants to the U.S. own businesses, according a new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. That compares to four percent of immigrants overall and three percent of people born in the United States.
Obay’s father, Mohamad, owned a manufacturing facility back in Syria and is now a mechanical engineer at a factory in Brooklyn. The Syrian entrepreneurial spirit is borne of necessity, he said. “In Syria, when you work for somebody, for a company or for the government, the income is not going to be enough to live a good life,” he said.
Syrians also drill it into their children’s heads that they have to be self-reliant, because there’s little safety net in the country, said Shadi Martini, a Syrian immigrant and a realtor who lives in Michigan. “Since we grow up, our parents will tell, don’t rely on government. They won’t help you. You have to do it by yourself,” Martini said. “Government is not there for us. It’s there for some people who are in high positions and that’s it.
Martini used to live in Aleppo, where he ran a hospital owned by his family. It was part of a network illegally providing medical care to wounded civilians who opposed the Assad regime. He left Syria in 2012 when that got too dangerous.