When Life Gives You Pickles… the Story of a Syrian Refugee Entrepreneur in Philadelphia

by Nicole Marcote

I fix my sight on the back of her head scarf and try to keep up with her quick and determined steps through Philadelphia’s crowded Reading Terminal Market. Once in a while, Amina turns around and flashes a quick smile, pleased that I am still in tow, barely. I can’t keep but wondering if this is how she walked through the market stalls in Syria and Turkey. I am a visitor in her newly adopted world.

Amina graduates from our 12-week entrepreneurship program

“Only a few weeks ago, we were sitting at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, where in my current role as a small business advisor at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, I assisted her in getting a few of the necessary permits and licenses to launch her business.”

Only a few weeks ago, we were sitting at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, where in my current role as a small business advisor at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, I assisted her in getting a few of the necessary permits and licenses to launch her business. A system, turf, and language I know my way around from having opened my own business in what seems like another life ago. While waiting for our number to be called, Amina shares the story behind her business idea: “I tried to seek help from friends and family members, but I couldn’t find any help. So I decided I need to build my own career. I built something out of scratch. I have no capital or money here. I thought to myself, what am I good at? What are my skills? And I thought of pickles.”

“The pickles I make are my mother’s recipe. My mom passed away when I was 17. I used to hang out with her a lot and when I got married. I initially started making pickles for my neighbors because they liked them.”

Amina has been working as a staff member of the Reading Terminal Market’s maintenance crew since she arrived in the U.S. over a year and half ago. “When I started working at the Reading Terminal Market, I realized not every meal comes with pickles. In Syria, it’s one of the main dishes you will find at any meal. I make all kinds of vegetable pickles: beans, eggplants, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, lemon, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, and colorful peppers.”

Amina at her stall at the Reading Terminal Market

“Family recipe secrets are that: secrets and narratives that don’t fit into predetermined allotted text boxes. A challenge I feel many immigrants and refugees face, to the point of having to chop last names, the narrative of our history.”

In one of our many meetings to create a plan review for the Food Protection Office, I asked her to describe her pickling process, so we can document it and present it for review. An old-world recipe meets nutrition facts label requirements. Family recipe secrets are that: secrets and narratives that don’t fit into predetermined allotted text boxes. A challenge I feel many immigrants and refugees face, to the point of having to chop last names, the narrative of our history. Concessions are made to keep on going.

Bright spots were met along Amina’s story though, like true supporters: “I spoke with Anuj Gupta, General Manager of the Reading Terminal Market, about my thoughts of starting a business to sell pickles. He is one of the best people I met in my life. He advised me and introduced me to the Welcoming Center where I found a new family. They support me and I will never forget what they did for me. I always think to myself I am so lucky to find good people.”

I am sure I’m not the only one who thinks that I am the lucky one at having met Amina.  Her resilience is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. “My motivation comes from all bad days I have had, whether in Syria, Turkey, or the U.S. I had a very hard time which gives me the motivation and the push to work harder. I now work cleaning the restrooms at the Reading Terminal Market and this is a difficult experience for me. In Syria, I was businesswoman, in Turkey, I worked as a supervisor in a factory supervising tailors. Here, starting from the bottom gives me the motivation to do better. I have memories of cleaning restrooms with an empty stomach. I will never let my children go through hard times like I have. I want them to succeed.”

Amina has four children, ages 17, 15, 12 and 8, and she is the sole income provider for her household, as her husband was injured.  How she makes it happen every day is a mystery to me.  But I am certain that the legacy of hard work and hope that her children are witnessing will carry them through to have dreams of their own.

Still at the Reading Terminal Market, after much meandering around the stalls, she points to several halal options for lunch.  We fight over who is going to pay.  She waves at a coworker cleaning tables and we find a spot to sit down and break bread together.  I look down at my food in a Styrofoam container and remember the detailed description Amina gave me of the special serving dishes, just for guests, she had at her summer house in Aleppo. “All of that is gone,” she says almost casually, “now we are here”.

Jars of Amina’s Foods Syrian style pickled vegetables

“Amina is here indeed, and she is making her mark on Philadelphia’s small business landscape.”

Amina is here indeed, and she is making her mark on Philadelphia’s small business landscape.  Her stall at the Reading Terminal Market opened on September 20th is a testimony to all dreamers, makers and shakers, and her message to me is that wherever life takes you, you can carve a niche to share what you carry within you, that which no one can take away from you; your story, your experience and your dreams.

If you are in the Philly area come out to support one of the many immigrants and refugees reinventing themselves. Amina’s Foods is open Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Reading Terminal Market (51 N 12th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107).

About The Author

Welcoming Center