English Feature #7-33700 Broadcast May 8, 2000
In today's segment of New American Voices you'll meet another immigrant entrepreneur -- Waria Salhi, a young Kurd who owns two gasoline filling stations in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
There are about 3,000 Kurds living in the Washington area. They come predominantly from northern Iraq, although some are from the other countries of the Middle East in which the Kurdish people live, including Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Waria Salhi is a tall, thin, dark-eyed young man in a leather jacket. He emigrated to the United States from Northern Iraq eight years ago, when he was twenty-one. He and a brother came to join their father, who had fled Iraq after a failed Kurdish uprising in the mid-seventies. What did the young man do when he first arrived?
"My dad first put us in a school right away and we did study for almost the first year, that's what we basically did, and we learned the language."
Growing up in Iraq, Waria as a Kurd had faced many hardships, including not being accepted by any institution of higher learning. So he worked as a mechanic - and found this skill more than useful when he came to the United States.
"When we first came here, and after going to school for a year, we had a friend on the East Coast, and he was in the automobile business, so by knowing him, myself I moved to Philadelphia. I stayed there for three years with my friend and we had a used car dealership. Because of my background as a mechanic, and I always liked mechanics and automobiles, I got involved with a gas station, and I really liked the business, and I met a lot of nice American people, and they helped me out to get here today."
Today Waria owns and operates an Exxon gas station with a convenience, or snack food, store, and also a Getty gasoline station franchise. But the beginnings were not easy.
"In a way it's kind of difficult to start your own business in this country. My first step was - my dad helped me out a little bit, it wasn't a whole lot but he did, and he helped me out a lot in teaching me how the system works, not just by giving me the money. He always says, I will not ever catch the fish for you, I will teach you how to catch fish yourself, and that's basically what he used with me, and that's the main reason why I really got successful in this business."
A gasoline station in a large metropolitan area in the United States is a pretty big business.
"Right now in today's market one of my stations, and Exxon is the main brand in this country, probably to establish a business like this you may need about $240,000 in order to have a business like this one right now, and that's not including the real estate."
Where does an ordinary person get this kind of money?
"If you have a good strong business plan and you have a background in business, then any bank will be happy to loan you the money. But I guess basically you have to have a good credit report and you have to reach a high score by financial institute standards in order to reach a certain amount of loans."
Waria Salhi employs between ten and fourteen people in his two gas stations. Although he does have some family members working for him, contrary to popular belief he does not favor hiring predominantly family or other Kurds to work in his businesses.
"As far as hiring, I just look for qualifications. Right now we have people from Egypt, from Iran and a lot of Americans - we have like four Americans - we have Africans, too, and we have one Spanish. This is a big business, you need to have people from all over, and also our clientele are Americans or Hispanic, not just Kurds, so you have to have certain people for a certain customers."
After working very hard for a number of years, Waria Salhi is now doing well, overseeing his businesses and planning to expand his operations by buying a third gas station and maybe a restaurant. Based on his own experience, he has this advice for any immigrant wanting to start his own business in America:
"For newcomers I really advise them first thing to really stick to it is to learn the language right away. Do not waste one minute of your time. The only way you can become something in this country is you have to have the language, or speak English, at least. The second advice is very important, that you get involved with Americans or the people around you, not to stay with your own community. You have to get involved with somebody else, with Americans and different ethnics. If you're really an ambitious person you have to know some people to become something, you can't just stick with your minorities and you'll never learn anything about the new culture that you're in. So you have to go out and get involved with people, like go to the gym, do exercise, go bowling, go do anything, just be out there."
Next week in this program we'll talk to the director of a program that helps immigrants like Waria Salhi -- who have little money or experience, but want to become entrepreneurs.