He escaped Syria, now helps save lives at Edesia

By Navyn Salem

I woke up this morning at 6:30 a.m. to learn that my babysitter quit. My twin’s field hockey practice was just moved to North Smithfield and I need to drive an hour and a half round trip during rush hour to pick them up. My 6th grader forgot her homework and my 4th grader is in tears that I am not home enough. My husband is out of town and I now need to get these kids to three different schools and get to the office. For those few hours I feel the weight of the world and wonder how I will make it through the day.

Then, I get a reality check.

I make it to Edesia’s headquarters in Providence where 24 hours a day we make a fortified peanut butter used to treat severe acute malnutrition and export to 46 countries through partners like UNICEF, World Food Programme, and USAID. I grab a coffee in the break room, still feeling sorry for myself and notice a new smiling face sitting at the table. I sit down and introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Navyn, pleasure to meet you. What do you do here?”

He told me. He is from Syria. He is a refugee. He was recruited by ISIS and had to flee the country with only hours to prepare to leave his home and family. How does one even respond? I sat there stunned wanting to know more. I’ve seen the headlines, I’ve seen the stories of the children and their incredibly dangerous journeys to safety and try to put myself in their shoes. At once, my field hockey worries dissolve and I feel ashamed that I even thought I was having a rough morning.

We have many refugees here at Edesia. They do all kinds of jobs, from shipping to production to quality control. They have survived the unthinkable. Wars, famine, droughts, or all of the above. I look at them with awe and respect, and wonder how they mustered the strength and resilience to overcome. Ironically, we make emergency food aid to help people in this precise situation. At Edesia, we have been making ready-to-eat fortified food products for children under the age of two in Syria for the last three years to help prevent malnutrition and help their little bodies and brains grow. My new colleague tells me he has seen our products in Syria and now he is here, in Providence where it was made. I’m speechless.

As I look at our new employee, I wonder if our policy makers have ever met a refugee. What is a refugee? A refugee can be a doctor, an 8-month pregnant mother of twins, a three-year old, and in my case the refugee sitting across from me is an engineer only four courses away from his Master’s degree. Think for a second about packing up all of your worldly possessions this evening and walking halfway across Europe only to reach a fence, a locked gate and soldiers. I cannot.

Many of us believe that refugees are uneducated people looking for a handout. My new colleague tells me people have asked him why he hasn’t applied for food stamps. He says, “I am here for safety, not to ask for help. I have money, I have a job, I can take care of myself. I have a couple of steps left to finish my Master’s degree, which I began at the University of Aleppo. I want to complete my Master’s in the U.S. and continue working. I would like to visit home at some point – even if all that is left is crumbling buildings, because Syria is my home. Now I am here, making food for my home country.“

When ISIS stopped him at a checkpoint on his way home from the factory he worked at in Aleppo, they held him at gunpoint and asked him if he was a doctor or engineer. A quick thinker, he told the gunman he was not and that his father had just passed away and he needed to help his mom. He knew this was the last time he would ever drive this road. He said goodbye to his parents and fled to Turkey, applied for a visa and was fortunate to be one of the 1,500 Syrians to be granted asylum in the U.S. His two brothers, a lawyer and a mechanical engineer are living in Germany and England. “We have Assad and we have ISIS. When you have to decide between these two you have to side with Assad even though we know he killed thousands.”

What if you came face to face with a refugee? What would you do if you took the time to ask them about their story? Would you shut the door in their face? I ask the same question when it comes to my work. I have the honor and privilege to meet refugees and children from every corner of the earth all the time. I know their stories. And that is why I can never turn my back and pretend they are not human beings or close my eyes and hope they will quietly disappear.

The one thing I love most about coming to my office is that we are involved in making a global impact every single day. Our team of 75 employees hail from 24 different countries. Everyday we are blessed to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of millions and many times in the same countries where our employees once fled. If a story is making the headlines, then you can be sure that Edesia’s machines are busy working around the clock to provide nutritional relief for those suffering most. It energizes me, drives me, motivates me to work harder, and at the same time, reminds me daily to always keep perspective by trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

To meet the ever-increasing global demand in the places you see on the nightly news, we are building a new 82,000 square foot facility in Quonset which will allow us to make enough food to feed upwards of two million children every year.

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