Dick Wittenberg
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It took Maher Mansour four years to build a business in this country as successful as the one he’d owned back in Syria, before he lost everything. His dream wouldn’t have come true without Fatima El Kaddouri. If only every refugee had a Fatima.

The hairdresser’s amazing comeback (or why everybody needs a Fatima)

Dick Wittenberg

He’d wanted to style ladies’ hair since he was a boy. It started in high school, when he helped out in a salon during summer vacations. An apprenticeship was the obvious next step. Syria has no professional hairdressing school, and Maher Mansour wanted to be the best. He needed to master every technique, every look. He wielded the scissors and dryer at a series of salons, learning the trade. At 21, he opened his own shop in Damascus.

Competition among hairdressers in the Syrian capital is fierce. To do well, you have to offer something special. Over the years, Maher trained in Italy, France, Spain, and Lebanon. With every new diploma, his repetition grew, and so did his business. His clientele included a parade of well-known His famous customers included:
- Amal Arafa
- Najla Kabani
- Solaf Fawakhergy
- Hiba Nour
- Kinda Hanna
- Hala Yamani
- Jenny Esper
After 15 years, he owned two salons in the suburb of Jdeidat Artouz, employing 20.

Maher works on a client. Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Maher works on a client. Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

And then, four years ago, he lost it all in a single day, when Watch the BBC report. heavy fighting in the neighborhood forced him to flee. Overnight, Maher went from being a successful businessman to a piece of flotsam on the waves of history. But he’s not dramatic about it. “It happened to so many people in my country,” he says with Zen-like calm in his lilting Dutch.

Perhaps even more striking than Maher’s sudden loss is his rapid resurrection in the Netherlands, where he arrived as a refugee in January 2013. Within a year, he’d opened a salon in Utrecht. A year and a half after that, he moved to a much larger space. And in a few months, he plans to open a second shop in Rotterdam with some of his old staff from Damascus.

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Salon Maher: a Porsche among Hondas

Welcome to Salon Maher. Imposing gold letters above the windows on both sides of the corner premises in Utrecht announce the name. “Accredited training salon,” reads a sticker on the glass. “We educate professionals.”

Salon Maher is on Amsterdamsestraatweg, less than a mile from the city’s main railway station and its adjacent shopping mall. The street is awash in salons: there’s Beautyhair, Hair Designer, CAN, Reni, Mehmet. The stylists peer at their smartphones under the fluorescent lights. There are no customers.

Entering Salon Maher is like walking into a ballroom. A chandelier bathes you in warm light

Salon Maher is a Porsche among the dented Hondas. Entering the shop is like walking into a ballroom: a chandelier bathes you in warm light, its glow reflected in the mirrors on the wall. To the right sit a heavy tufted red leather sofa and armchair. Beyond them is a wooden reading table, not far from the coffee machine.

It’s midafternoon, and five of the six styling chairs are occupied. A young mother is getting shampooed; her toddler plays at her feet. Two customers wait patiently at the reading table. A twentysomething in a leather jacket walks in, talking on her phone. She breaks off just long enough for a nonchalant “Hi. Cut, no blowdry?” At Maher’s nod, she sinks into the red armchair and keeps talking until it’s her turn to get shampooed.

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

The story of Maher and Fatima

How did the refugee Maher Mansour build a booming business in so short a time? He and Fatima El Kaddouri told the tale earlier this morning, sitting on the red leather sofa, as the staff got ready for the first customers. Fatima came to the Dutch village of Oudenbosch from Morocco at age 13 to live with her father. She has worked for Rabobank in Utrecht now for more than a decade. Maher’s success is Fatima’s success too, though she brushes the idea aside. “He’d have made it without me,” she says. “It just would have taken longer.”

They met in early 2013 in a Turkish salon in Utrecht. Fatima was a customer; Maher was looking for a job. He’d been in the Netherlands three weeks. They’d told him to be patient: first he’d have to wait for his temporary residence permit, and then he’d be able to apply for social security and learn Dutch. Only after all that could he hope to possibly get a job someday. But Maher wasn’t willing to wait. “In this business, you have to keep progressing,” he says. “If you take a couple of years off, that’s it: you’re not a hairdresser anymore.” A Syrian acquaintance told him a Turkish salon was looking for an experienced stylist.

“My hair and I are super-happy with you.” I’m already pretty, but you make me irresistible.”

Fatima recalls her first impression of Maher: “a happy, sweet guy who knew exactly what he wanted.” They spoke Arabic together and trusted each other from the start.

Soon the job was Maher’s. Before long, he was dreaming of opening a new salon. But he didn’t dare; his Dutch still wasn’t good enough to talk to customers. Fatima swept aside his trepidation with one fell swoop: if he focused totally on work, she said, she’d deal with all the paperwork and arrangements.

They take turns telling their story, working as a team, just as they did when they looked for that first location. They found it down the street on Amsterdamsestraatweg: a shoebox, bare and basic. The cheap rent minimized the financial risk. They located hairdressing tools and limited stock online and tore around the Netherlands in Fatima’s car, collecting things.

Fatima was the one who negotiated with the landlord. She perused the rental contract. And she even acted as Maher’s guarantor; he’d never have gotten the place as the holder of a temporary residence permit. Fatima’s friends told her she was crazy. What was she getting herself into, all for some guy from Syria? “Just to be clear,” Fatima says firmly, “We’re not a couple. And we’re not business partners. It’s his business. We’re friends, kindred spirits. We talk on the phone a couple of times a day.”

Photos by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photos by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

At the end of 2013, in the first weeks after opening, Maher had one or two customers a day at most. But he refused to be daunted. He got up at six every morning to study Dutch, and then for his driving test. From 10 to 7, he worked in the salon, filling every free hour with reading and study. “I took all the pain of losing my business and my country and turned it into positive action,” Maher says. “I didn’t let anything or anyone get me down. I stayed as focused as I was in Damascus.”

Some of his friends haven’t gotten over losing the comfortable lives they had. Some – Maher calls them “the living dead” – have even returned to Syria since fleeing, so deeply did they yearn for home as it had been before the war. But that country no longer exists.

Maher doesn’t look back. He wants to move forward. As he worked in that homely little shop down the street, his multicultural clientele grew through word of mouth. Before long, he couldn’t handle the workload on his own. Keep doing what you’re doing, his customers urged him.

And here in this much larger salon, this ballroom he moved into last summer, they’re still cheering him on. In the wood-paneled smoking area, out of reach of male eyes, women write words of praise on the walls in felt-tip. “My hair and I are super-happy with you.” “I may be pretty, but you make me irresistible.” “Life is too short to have boring hair.”

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

The dance of the ladies and gentlemen

As you pass the ornate chest with the Buddha on top on your way from the smoking area to the restrooms with their tea light glow, don’t be fooled – all that stuff was “picked up from various places” too, Fatima says. Even the red sofa.

It’s the best seat in the house for the spectacle that unfolds here, as it does in any busy salon. It resembles a dance for six men and six women. The stylists – all slender young guys with neatly trimmed beards and man buns, except for one who’s balding – dance the male parts. Ladies’ hairdressing is a man’s job in Syria. Four of these guys worked for Maher back in Damascus: George, Emad, Georges, and Younan, Maher’s little brother. They came here as refugees too.

In the ladies’ roles are the clients who are getting their hair done. They tap their smartphones as if their lives depended on it, sneaking a look now and then at the stylists or their own reflections.

The men circle continuously around the women, their movements concentrated and purposeful. They wave blowdryers. Using rattail combs, they select sections of hair to dye. Wielding brushes, they style tresses into waves.

They exchange scarcely a word. Nobody chats about the weather. A serene calm prevails, though music plays in the background. The men move in time with its rhythmic heartbeat. One, unable to restrain himself, does a little dance. Maher pays no attention; he’s busy styling hair.

“Cut, no blowdry, €20,” he says at the register, as if he’s lived in the Netherlands all his life. “Thanks a lot. Bye.”

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Everybody needs a Fatima

The story could end here, but it doesn’t. That chance encounter almost four years ago changed Fatima’s life forever too. Maher was the first refugee she helped build a new life. And plenty of others have followed. Right now, Fatima’s got upwards of 20 people under her wing. She acts as their interpreter, helps them figure out what to study, goes with them to the doctor, even the operating room.

For the past few years, she’s done it all alongside a full-time job. She commends her employer, Rabobank, and her coworkers, who gave her space, put up with the countless phone calls in Arabic, and told her they were proud of her for helping all those people.

Fatima’s good at that. Her fluency in Arabic is a huge plus. She gets the meaning behind the words, understands the culture. And she knows how things work in the Netherlands. But she only helps the truly motivated, she says. “I’d rather really help 50 people than help 200 halfway.”

When Rabobank’s last reorganization came around, Fatima volunteered to leave. She’ll always be grateful to the bank for allowing her to grow for all those years, she says. “But a promotion, a higher pay grade – that doesn’t make me any happier anymore.”

Photos by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photos by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

What does? A dish cooked specially for her in gratitude. Or a phone call like the one she got earlier from a 60-year-old man in Doorn, for whom she arranged Dutch lessons. She calls him “uncle” out of respect. “Fatima,” said the uncle from Doorn, “you can congratulate me now. My family reunification is complete.”

She recently sold her lovely house in the Utrecht suburb of Nieuwegein; all she did there was sleep, she says. “Possessions, going around town buying everything – that’s not how you find satisfaction.” Fatima shakes her mop of curly hair – all her own, she’ll have you know. Only the coppery hue is a Salon Maher addition.

She’s currently setting up a foundation that will actively help refugees to achieve their wildest dreams, just as Maher has. It’s something every newcomer could use: their own Fatima.

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

Photo by Catharina Gerritsen for The Correspondent

This report is part of the New to the Netherlands initiative. This project is made possible by support from the The Dioraphte Foundation’s website can be found here (in Dutch only). Dioraphte Foundation.

—Translated from Dutch by Laura Martz and Erica Moore

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