Meet Amina Aliako, a Syrian refugee who is a day-cart owner and janitor at Reading Terminal Market.
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Aliako, 42, had owned a curtain-making factory in Syria before the civil war there, but when she came to Philadelphia as a refugee in January 2017, the best job she could get to support herself and her family was part-time janitorial work at the Reading Terminal.
"I couldn't take it on myself to realize that I was cleaning toilets in the United States," she said through an interpreter.
But as she did, Aliako made a promise to God and to herself.
"I promised God that if everything works out, and I open my own business, that the first customer that comes every day will have anything they want for free," she said.
On Sept. 20, when Aliako opened her day cart — Amina's Foods — at the Reading Terminal, she got to fulfill that promise, and she's lived it up to every day she's been open.
Aliako, her husband, and their four children — who range in age from 8 to 17 — are from Aleppo, where she said they experienced bombings "on a daily basis" once the civil war began in 2011.
"We were so scared of going outside," Aliako said. "When we used to hear the airplanes and the noises, all of us would go in a bedroom and hide."
After Aliako's husband suffered an eye injury during a bombing, the family fled to Turkey, where doctors pushed them to register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees so they could be resettled in the United States, where Aliako's husband might get proper medical care.
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One month after Aliako and her family arrived in Philly, Aliako — her family's lone breadwinner — got the part-time job as a janitor.
Anuj Gupta, general manager of the Reading Terminal, said Aliako's work ethic was so exceptional, he offered her a full-time job, with benefits, after six months.
"And that's when she said, 'No. I want to start my own business,' " Gupta recalled.
Aliako told Gupta she wanted to sell her Syrian pickled vegetables, hummus, baba ghanoush, rice pudding, and cookies at the market. But permanent spaces only come up once or twice a year, are expensive to rehab, and require a five-year lease, Gupta said.
But Gupta had an idea. For several years, the market has used historic luggage carts from the old Reading Railroad as day stalls for entrepreneurs. He thought Aliako would be a perfect fit for a cart, which costs $50 a day to rent.
In September 2017, Gupta connected Aliako with the Enterprise Center, which helped her understand the regulations surrounding food preparation and owning a retail business. The Enterprise Center then connected Aliako with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, where she enrolled in a 12-week business class.
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Herman Nyamunga, the Welcoming Center's director of entrepreneurship and innovation, said it's not unusual for immigrants to want to start their own business.
"Whether you are coming in as a doctor or as an engineer or you had a factory like Amina, when you come here, America reduces you to zero," he said. "The best thing someone will offer you is cleaning toilets, washing dishes, stuff like that."
The uphill battle often makes immigrants like Aliako more resolved to succeed on their own, he said.
"She had a lot of fire and determination in her stomach," Nyamunga said. "You could tell this person is focused like a laser on what she wants."
And it only took her a year to make her vision a reality.
"To get from that point [where she started] to where she is today is remarkable," Gupta said.
Amina's Foods is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Aliako also still works two days a week cleaning the Reading Terminal.
She said she'll never forget the opportunities the Reading Terminal has offered her and what it was like to once again become a business owner.
"It was the best day of my life, because all my efforts were not wasted," she said. "When you are successful and you taste success, it's a really special feeling."
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