Refugee channels love of history into handcrafted jewelry business

·2 min read
Refugee channels love of history into handcrafted jewelry business
Refugee channels love of history into handcrafted jewelry business

Nawar Sahli says every gemstone carries a story.

He says if you gaze into natural agate, you'll see shadows of trees, rocks or even an eagle that once flew over the stone.

  • WATCH | Take a closer look at his work in the video above

Or, if you smell amber — yes, smell — he says you'll be transported back to where the stone is from, and it only grows stronger the more it's worn.

"You can see in every stone of this kind, stories," he says.

Walk into N80M, the small shop the 32-year-old opened in July in northeast Calgary, and he'll help you find a stone: onyx to develop emotional strength, labradorite for those who tend to work too much, or maybe ruby, for love.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

The "N" in N80M is his first initial. The rest are numbers and letters that he read were lucky.

Sahli grew up in Syria, the child of two Palestinian refugees.

He studied English literature at the University of Damascus and put himself through school by working with antiques at a museum in the old part of the city — a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, with historic mosques and palaces.

He had always loved history, devouring books about the past since age five, but he said that's where he started to fall in love with gemstones as well as the intricacy of the region's jewelry through generations of crafstmanship.

But as he neared the end of his degree in 2011, civil war erupted.

"I graduated and immediately I must leave Syria because of the situation there," he said.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

The eldest son in his family, Sahli was supposed to join the army. Instead, he left for Thailand, leaving his family behind. He hasn't seen them since.

"When I left my family, I thought it was going to be months, not [almost] 10 years," he said.

He worked a series of odd jobs in Thailand, eventually getting a position teaching English in a small village. After a few years, he got a call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — he had been accepted to come to Canada.

For the past four years in Canada, he has worked jobs from Skip the Dishes driver to Home Depot overnight clerk, all to save up money so he could focus on his passion.

He said it's been hard, forming the connections to start a business in a new country.

Now, he's working on his next goal: to gain Canadian citizenship and raise money to bring his family over here to join him.

When asked where he sees himself in 10 or 20 years, that's what he pictures — being surrounded with family, and using his love of the past to fund his future.

"In 20 years, [I see] a normal life. I don't have it right now," he said.