Two men who fled persecution in the Middle East to start a new life in Vancouver now face another hurdle: keeping their business afloat during a global pandemic.
Compared to what they've overcome already, though, Galilio Aissami and Raphaël Machalani are up for the challenge.
"Compared to the war, compared to bombs … it's nothing," said Aissami, co-owner of Mawlana, a clothing and textile boutique on Granville Island.
"It's a big thing, I know, but compared to our experience, at least we're safe."
Aissami, 32, and Machalani, 30, arrived in Vancouver just over a year ago. Born in Syria, Aissami fled to Turkey when the civil war began. Machalani joined him shortly after fleeing his home country of Lebanon, where he says he faced persecution for being gay.
In Instanbul, they settled into a colourful community of refugees — artists and jewellery makers who crafted intricate embroidery and bright scarves.
Machalani says they requested asylum in Canada because of the country's respect for LGBT people and human rights. When they found out they'd been granted asylum, they knew they wanted to bring a part of that world along with them.
"We just became part of that big family," Machalani said.
"We were very adamant [that] we need to open this store, not only for us but for the people we left behind, and we want a piece of home with us here in this store."
Mawlana, named after the Sufi poet Rumi, got its start in Syria in Aleppo. They brought the concept with them as they relocated to Turkey and then to Canada. It carries handmade cashmere and silk scarves, shoes, clothing, home ware, jewlery and other accessories that showcase the work of refugees across the world but mainly in the Middle East.
Many items are handmade by refugee women living in Turkey, Aissami said, and he's eager to share the story behind them.
"We want people to know about our culture, our designs, our colours," he said.
Almost as soon as the couple opened the store in March, they had to close because of COVID-19 restrictions.
They spent the following months photographing 3,400 items for their online store, offering curbside pickup and planning to reopen.
Now, the store is welcoming customers once again with physical distancing and heightened sanitation procedures in place.
While they couldn't have the grand opening they'd hoped for, the store signifies their resilience and the tenacity of refugees, they said. Both speak multiple languages. Aissami studied international law and human rights and Machalani has a master's degree in computer engineering.
Still, they feel there is racism and negative stereotypes toward refugees in Canada but remain optimistic they can build a successful future here together, even during a pandemic.
"Here, you are building on stone, you are building on something solid. That allows us to put more work in because we are no longer afraid everything might disappear in a second," Machalani said.
For Aissami, their store is both an anchor to their past and a key to a bright future.
"Canada is home for me," he said. "And the future is amazing."