David Cotton, a 2017 Christianson Grantee, spent one year in Greece building social enterprises to help refugees in Athens. He reflects on the challenges of his project and the cross-cultural understanding that transpired.
M is a male refugee from Pakistan. M didn’t want to be a cook. He didn’t want to be a waiter. Not a bellboy, nor receptionist, nor maintenance worker. M’s dream was to cut women’s hair.
This is the story of the small role I played in helping him realize that dream.
Initially, M’s plans and my own had no overlap. I planned to lead the opening of Layali Hotel, a profit-sharing social enterprise hotel providing permanent jobs and apprenticeships to refugees in Athens, Greece. My partners and I wanted to build a link between the strongest industry in Greece’s economy (tourism) and an underprivileged population in Greece (refugees and migrants). M wanted to style women’s hair, but was unemployed in Greece.
The challenges of opening a social enterprise in Greece
Greek bureaucracy has a poor reputation. That reputation is entirely deserved. The process to open an officially recognized social enterprise is painfully slow and difficult. We began the paperwork in early March 2018 and completed it in September 2018.
Key to our eventual success was my ability to learn Greek – financial support from the Christianson Grant made language lessons possible. I spent countless days in Greek tax offices completing paperwork with our French, Syrian, Afghani, and Greek founding team. There is a special cultural bonding that takes places when you are stuck in line at a Greek tax office.
Image courtesy of Pexels.
As Greek is not a language expats often learn, my ability to speak it drew interest among locals. I arrived thinking that the greatest benefit of learning Greek would be the ability to communicate. Instead, the greatest advantage was the credibility it gave me in the eyes of locals.
Changing direction from boutique hotel to salon & shop
Our team toiled to find funding and footing for Layali Hotel, generally without success. But slowly, we built a brand in Athens as the social enterprise dedicated to supporting refugees. This brand led to what would become M’s and my connection.
A donor who had turned down a request for funding for Layali Hotel proposed an alternative: “I own an empty beauty salon in Athens. Want to re-open it as a social enterprise?”
I was skeptical. I lacked not only professional experience in the beauty industry, but also practical experience: I’d never even gotten a manicure. My dream was the hotel.
Spring cleaning! Getting the salon ready. Image courtesy of David C.
But the day I met M, the salon project went from a moonshot to feasible. With M’s hair knowledge and my business knowledge, we led a team of volunteers to launch Layali Salon.
Layali Hotel was not to be. By shelving the hotel (for now, at least), our team refocused on a project that gave purpose and economic security to a group of refugees, M among them.
Layali Salon. Image courtesy of David C.
We built a large team of local professionals, including accountants, lawyers, graphic designers, translators, and professional advisors. In Greece, a professional relationship begins with a personal one. I would never have expected to build such close relationships with a professional team in the United States. But in Greece, work is generally completed over 10:00 pm dinners after two hours of chatter about everyone’s family drama. My relationship with my lawyer is so great that he has plans to visit me with his wife in Alaska this summer!
The grand opening of Layali Salon & Shop
Layali Salon opened in January 2019. The grand opening was covered by CNN.gr, Greek National Television, the Associated French Press, and a variety of refugee focused news outlets. The salon is currently preparing to launch its apprenticeship program, allowing the project to impact not just refugees already trained in the beauty industry, but also those who are looking to develop new skills.
We also opened Layali Shop, a storefront in Athens’ tourist center selling handmade goods crafted by refugees. Imam, a recognized refugee from Iran, and I built relationships with 10 different refugees from around the world who provided the shop’s products.
Setting up Layali Shop. Image courtesy of David C.
The highlight of my role was counting the money to distribute to our artisans every week. Seeing their faces when they came to collect their cash from sales was a delight. So often, these individuals had grown used to collecting benefits (financial or otherwise) for free. The shop’s greatest achievement was providing benefits for hard work, instilling a sense of independence in the refugees.
Layali Shop entrance. Image courtesy of David C.
In addition to providing funds to refugees, the shop also had the advantage of creating a positive reputation for them in the center of Athens. Given the shop’s location in the heart of the tourist area, locals and tourists alike had a chance to see refugees as contributing members of the community. This expanded our impact far beyond the actual money we returned to refugees.
Layali Shop jewelry. Image courtesy of David C.
The shop recently held a Nowruz (Persian New Year) event to share Arab culture with the Greek community and are planning more cultural exchange events for the future! The InterExchange Foundation’s Christianson Grant made this work possible. I recently applied to MBA programs in the U.S. to focus on social impact businesses. Most of the experience I pitched in applications came from my time in Greece!
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