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Alisha Yousif January 20, 2013 Syriac Catholic Church Jacksonville, Florida Esam Alhadi, Interviewer and Translator for University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Edited by Jardee Transcription Also present, Richard Saltzburg Alhadi: Hello Mr. Alisha Yousif We are happy to have the interview with you this afternoon. It is now 1:25 PM and today is Sunday, Janua ry 20, 2013. We are he re in the Catholic Syriac Church in Jacksonville in the state of Florida. My name is Esam Alhadi and this is my colleague Richard. We are from the Univer sity of Florida. Thank you for agreeing to give us this interview. We usually begin by asking for a brief preview of the early phase of your life before coming to America. You may begin by stating your full name so as to have it on tape. Yousif: My name is Alisha Yousif. I left Iraq in 1981 for France to study. I had some difficulties to continue there and was thus fo rced to leave for Greece. I lived there for nine years and obtained a political refugee visa that gave me the right to come to America through a church society. I ar rived in New York and lived th ere for four days. My next stop was Los Angeles, where I lived for ten year s. I then moved to Miami and lived there for seven years before moving to Jacksonville, Florida. Alhadi: I want to focus a little bit on the early phase of your life in Iraq. You may tell us where you were born. Yousif: I was born in a small district called Te ll Kaif in the Musil Province. Many Christians lived in that district at that time. I moved with my family to Baghdad where I finished my elementary education there. I also did my college education at the University of
Technology in Baghdad. I got an opportunity to go to France to study there. I left on the first or maybe the second of February to France. Due to some difficulti es such as lack of funds and harsh living conditions, as well as the language barrier, I had to leave three months later. I studied in English in Iraq. This is what made it difficult for me to continue in France. I arrived in Greece and tried to get a cer tificate there, but it was also very hard. I encountered the language probl em one more time. I had no support from anyone when I was in Greece. This forced me to find a job. While I was there, I came to know about these Christian societies that help Christians regardless of where they come from. I got my name listed and had to wait fo r ten years before the results came out. I spent all this period in Athens and became fluent Greek speaker. Alhadi: What work did you do in Greece? Yousif: I was working in the marble business, wh ich is similar to what I currently do. I quit going to school because I had to make living and support myself. The nature of my work was to carve friezes and do the finishing touc hes on them before they became ready to go on the market. I came to New York after getting an entry visa to the USA. Then I moved to California, Miami, a nd finally Jacksonville. Alhadi: When did you finally settle in Jacksonville? Yousif: I came here on April 17, 2004. That is ni ne years ago and Ive been here ever since. Alhadi: I want this interview to focus more on th e business side of your li fe. Are you still in the same field that your started your business career? Yousif: Yes. I do marble work. In my busines s we do granite kitchen co untertops. We cut and smooth granite slabs and install them on kitche n counters. My business is called Petra Marble Design Inc. I used to have partners working with me, but four years ago, I started
to work on my own. I did this work fr om the very beginning and never relied on government unemployment benefits. This has always been my work, thanks be to God. Alhadi: Would you please tell us how you started this work, how did it develop, and what plans do you have for the future? Yousif: The projects that we do are not that big. We work in re sidential units. We publicize our work through a network of acquain tances. It is not a very big business. It used to be strong back in 2004 and 2005 and it kept incr easing. However, like everybody else, we got hit by the economy slowdown. However, regardless of the recession, we kept moving and remained in business, thanks be to God. Alhadi: Does that mean you are currently running the business by yourself and have no partners? Yousif: I am by myself. I get help fr om four employees who work with me. Alhadi: Do you see a chance for the business to grow bigger? Yousif: This depends on getting a bit of backup from the banks. Such a help would have helped business to grow and to import granites fr om overseas. Banks no longer give loans the way they used to in the past. This is the problem we are facing. Business is now just enough to make a living. Life is becoming ha rd for everybody including us. In the past, we used to do five kitchens a week. Now, we can barely do two or three granite kitchen countertops or bathr oom floorings a week. Alhadi: Where do you get the stone from? Yousif: Stone is imported from Brazil and Indi a. We get it through big supplying companies. This is the problem we are facing. We can use small loans in buying marble and have it ready in our lab whenever a customer comes in. What happens now is that a customer
comes and pays us. We then go and buy the mate rial for a price that is three times higher than the price we can buy it for if we can get the material directly from Brazil or India. This reduces our profits. We use most of the money we get in paying for the material, labor and rental. What remains is just enough to keep business stable and going, but certainly less luxurious from how it used to be. Alhadi: Isnt it possible to get the raw material from here in America? Yousif: No. Granite doesnt co mmonly exist here. There are some granite quarries in the north, but of a lesser quality than the one people usually use in kitchens. Alhadi: So, the main sources of the stone are Brazil and India. Yousif: And from Italy as well. Alhadi: Is it possible to import for your own business, or should it always be through big companies? Yousif: It has to be through big companies. They import the stone and we buy from them for a price that is three times the price than if we bought it directly from Brazil. Alhadi: You spent eight or nine years in this business. You also did the same work in Greece and in Los Angeles. This means you have acc umulated considerable experience in this field. Is your work currently confined to the Jacksonville area only, or do you do work outside the area? Yousif: I do go out of state sometimes. I work with some good American contractors who have projects in Alabama and South Carolina. I jo in them whenever possible. I joined them on a project in Mississippi two years ago. It was a project of 165 residential units. Alhadi: Was it the biggest pr oject you ever worked on?
Yousif: The biggest project I have done was two and half hours away from here. That was back in 2004. The project consisted of 360 units where we had to do the kitchen tops and bathroom flooring. It was all granite. Alhadi: Do you think this type of work would be successful in an Arab country? Yousif: Absolutely. It would be very successful if they can find the experience it requires. We have the experience here, and we can help w ith transferring our experience to the Arab countries. They need to get the right experi ence in the lab and production work. It is very important to learn how to cut the slabs corr ectly. It is also impor tant to be trained to do the work on time. I think Arab countries lack the quality control. I dont want to be judgmental on Arab countries. Unemployment is very high in many Arab countries. What we need there is good training and gui dance for those who are not working. We also need to establish labs. I believe there s hould be no less than fifty labs in each of the following countries: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Ira q, Northern Kurdistan, Jordan, and Lebanon. It is possible to have these labs, but we need skilled labor. It is entirely possible. The problem is that corruption is the reason for the dysfunctional system there. We [Arabs] lack an earnest interest in what work means. What we have learned here in America is that one can be a good citizen and also manage our lives correctly. We are always directed in the right direction in any field we operate in. We have the opportunity to live, invest, and grow. This is what we lack in the Arab countries. We dont get the correct guidance and direction. Alhadi: This is excellent. You apparently re flect your good experiences in the business field. I want to go back to ask about you about the raw materials you us e. Does it exist in any of the Arab countries?
Yousif: Of course. We have a project to build a church for the Lebanese community here and all the stone will be imported from Lebanon and Palestine. We have the material there, but the problem is that we dont have the good labs and the skilled labor to do the work. Brazil was that way twenty years ago and Braz ilian granite wasnt that well-known at the time. It has now come a long way and beco me the top granite-pr oducing country in the world. They imported the necessary machiner y and skilled labor from Italy. I had the opportunity to visit Brazil and found that a granite slab that we buy here for $900 costs no more than $50 there. I found an Indian quarry manager there who gets paid no more than $20 a month. The problem goes back to how projects are de signed and managed. Alhadi: Mr. Alisha, this is a remarkable job. Do you get help from any of your family members to run your business? Yousif: I am doing it by myself. I am not married and have no family here. My siblings are in Australia. I had a chance to visit them ther e. Both my father and my mother lived and died there, may God rest their souls in peace. Alhadi: This is an excellent experience. So you think that if a good administrative and management mentality existed with the res ources that are already there in the Arab countries, then such a business would be very successful? Yousif: Sure. What we do here is that we hi re some Mexican laborers. They get training for two or three months and they become skilled professionals an d start to produce work of high quality. This goes back to our manage ment efforts. People who are serious are those who want to help their people and country and see it doing well. These are some of the basic things that we learne d after coming to this country.
Alhadi: Let me ask you more questions of a bus iness nature. Did you face any troubles that you feel may have negatively impacted your work? Yousif: It is all about finding the financial support. We freque ntly face the situation of being unable to proceed with this or that project because contactors are unable to get the loans they need. I listened to one of the late pr esidential debates between Obama and Romney where a reference was made to a twenty-million-dollar small business. Why is it important to support a twenty-million-dollar small business? How about our businesses? You may call a cleaning firm w ith seven or ten workers a small business, but certainly it is not worth twenty million dolla rs. This is an astronomical figure for a small business. If the government supports those, then I strongly believe it shoul d support any small business. Alhadi: That means the problem as you see it is mainly financial. Yousif: That is correct. If banks loosen their rules a bit a nd offer us loans, then we can go and buy materials. It is not fair to buy a granite slab for $900 wh en it is possible to buy it for way less. This is one of the ways to support small businesses. Alhadi: What other problems do you face beside s lack of enough financial support? Are there procedural issues that may be causing problems to your business? Yousif: We have a marketing problem. However, if a business owner does his work in a highly professional manner and always acts in a very straightforward way, then he will always get new customers. This business work s through networking. A customer will tell another and a third and a fourth and so forth. These factors intervene into each other and help you to make your busine ss stay on the right track. Alhadi: What plans do you have for the future?
Yousif: I would like to expand my business. I am planning to go to Brazil this coming April to talk to suppliers over there. I hope to make use of a loan system called line over the credit which requires making a commitment to pay the loan back in ninety days. If this works, we will import the materials, se ll them, and pay back the loan on time. Alhadi: Mr. Alisha, we are very happy to ha ve this opportunity with you. These are very important details for our students and researcher s. This interview will be saved and will be there forever. Thank you one more time a nd we hope to hear that things are going well with you and your work. Yousif: Thank you. [END OF INTERVIEW]