How a Syrian refugee found the American dream at Reading Terminal Market

Amina Aliako went from janitor to vendor in less than a year. Will her business survive?

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Max Marin / Billy Penn
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When Amina Aliako started cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors part-time at Reading Terminal Market last year, the kaleidoscopic vendors there were her introduction to America.

She practiced English with native Philly line cooks and Amish bakers. She ordered her first ever cheesesteak from Carmen’s — and then her second. She even found a fellow Syrian in Kamal Al Barouki, a longtime purveyor of Middle Eastern foods at the market.

“When I first started working here I was a little bit worried because I wear a hijab,” Aliako said in Arabic, her second language after Kurdish.

“But in my two years, honestly, I haven’t had a single person harass me. I haven’t experienced any racism. I see such humanity in the managers and the workers. They make me feel welcome.”

Six months in, Anuj Gupta, the market’s general manager, offered Aliako a full-time job. Benefits, paid leave, the whole nine yards — it was a fast promotion for the 43-year-old newly settled refugee. But she turned it down: “I told him, ‘No, I want to sell here.’”

Over the next few months, Aliako would learn to navigate the barriers of starting your own business, and the red tape of regulations dreaded by culinary entrepreneurs, and the lack of options to secure loans as an immigrant, and the precariousness of keeping an enterprise going once you’ve already drained your life savings.

But in less than year, Amina’s Foods was born.

Three days a week, the new vendor’s cart in the market sells a spread of Levantine classics, from creamy hummus and baba ghanoush to jars of colorful pickles and savory kibbeh. Her cleaner-to-vendor hustle has wowed the market leadership. “Amina’s is the story of America for its entire existence,” Gupta said. “This is how our country has been built.”

Aliako’s story is a testament to Philadelphians who take being a “welcoming city” status to heart. But Aliako is also learning that like anything else in America, success is not guaranteed.

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Max Marin / Billy Penn

A long journey, a welcoming city

The Aliako family fled their besieged city of Aleppo after the civil war broke out in 2011. Like many Syrians, their destination was Turkey. Aliako’s husband could no longer work due to a severe eye injury sustained during a bombing, and she became the sole breadwinner for the family.

Fast forward a bit — through years of interviews with the United Nations about a refugee resettlement program, years of the children working odd jobs instead of going to school, years of rising hostility towards Syrians coming through Turkey’s southern border — and 2017 found the family settling into a new home in Northeast Philadelphia.

Weeks after their arrival stateside, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump would propose banning entry to the U.S. on Muslims from seven countries — including Aliako’s homeland. Coincidentally, at the same time, Gupta was bringing together newly settled Syrians and native Northeast Philadelphians for a dinner series to promote cultural exchange at the nation’s oldest indoor marketplace.

Two days later, Aliako returned to the market and asked for a job.

“I was so optimistic, despite everything,” she said.

Gupta put her to work part-time on the Terminal’s maintenance team — and was quickly impressed by her work ethic. When Aliako turned down the full-time offer in lieu of pursuing a dream to open her own shop, he couldn’t argue.

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Max Marin / Billy Penn

Dreams meet red tape

Aliako, who ran a curtain factory back in Syria, had scant sense of the hurdles of opening a food business in the U.S. Across the Middle East, many people bring homemade goods to sell at open-air markets, or souqs. In the Reading Terminal, Aliako caught a whiff of that same entrepreneurial air — scented by a lot more red tape, she would soon learn.

“But everyone helped me,” she recalled. “They showed me how to get the permits and licenses — everything.”

“Everyone” in this case was the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, which connected Aliako with a 12-week business crash course; The Enterprise Center, which helped her get her ServSafe accreditation and jump through the regulatory hurdles; and The Women’s Opportunity Resource Center, which helped secure some financial aid for her startup expenses.

Institutional outreach aside, those involved say no one helped Aliako more than herself.

“There were moments when I didn’t know what she needed,” said Kareema Abusaab, a project manager at the Enterprise Center who helped translate for Aliako during the business-building process. “Whenever she found an obstacle or a door closed, she went through until someone was willing to listen to her.”

But there are few guarantees that this success story will continue to flourish.

Aliako spent much of her savings and startup capital getting Amina’s Foods up and running. Depending on the immediate fortunes of the nascent cart business, Abusaab explained, more formidable challenges may now present themselves.

“Amina still needs help financially, and I am not sure how that works given she is not a U.S. citizen,” she told Billy Penn. “I think she, like many small business owners, have one major challenge — access to capital.”

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Max Marin / Billy Penn

‘Insh’allah,’ or ‘God willing’

Between running her cart Thursday through Saturday and cleaning the Terminal on two other days, Aliako’s mornings begin early — and take her all over the city.

From her Northeast home in the morning, she hops on a bus and then a train to West Philadelphia, where she preps food for several hours in a commercial kitchen space rented from the Center for Culinary Enterprises. She then brings her wares back to 12th & Filbert in Center City. “My problem is that I’m not allowed to cook in the house and I’m not allowed to cook here [at the market],” she explained, citing state law. “Without a car, you know, it’s really hard.”

Then there’s the money: the hourly rent at the prep kitchen, the product overhead, the rent at the Terminal. Her small vendor space on a repurposed luggage cart at the market costs $50 a day.

Financial worries aside, she is clearly excited about the month-old business.

Amina’s Foods offers essential street eats as they would be served in Syria, though Aliako claims some of the “authentic Syrian” spices are harder to find in Philly — Palestinian and North African groceries are more plentiful, she said. The hummus has been a best-seller, but it’s not far behind the roz bhaleeb, a regional staple of rice pudding topped with cinnamon and pistachio dust.

Good customer service is a sales tactic: Each morning she’s open, Aliako gives her first customer their purchases for free.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the market hummed softly between the lunch rush and the after-work grocery crowd. One of her sons — high school-aged, fluent in English, with a dream of his own to go to college for business — helped his mother make sales. Passersby stopped for free samples and to eye the Middle Eastern pastries. It’s slow going for half an hour.

Just before, talking about money, Aliako sounded worried. But now she looks calm. Business will pick up, she says, “insh’allah” — an Arabic phrase that means “God willing.”

Amina’s Foods is open Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at the Reading Terminal.

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Max Marin / Billy Penn