Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?
Today we hear from Andy Hasroun, entrepreneur, developer and owner of 55 Degree Wine:
"I was born in Homs, Syria. I came to the United States in 1992, when I was thirteen-years-old. I came by myself. I had a grandmother in the United States and some uncles, but I didn't have anyone here from my immediate family.
"Syria is a Third World country. It's a poor country. Coming here was like going to a different world. I walked out of the airport and -- wow -- it was unbelievable! It was like a dream. Like a dream come true.
"My other grandma still lives in Homs today. Her house made of mud. You know -- mud? Back in the day that's what they used. From my grandma's house made out of mud to coming to the United States is a dramatic difference. A huge difference.
"You know about the mess that's happening right now in Homs and elsewhere in Syria. When I lived there, life was okay. Was it as bad as it now? No, no, no, no. Safety was never an issue.
"We come from a Christian family and we were a very small percentage, a minority, in Syria. It was probably ten percent then and probably three or four percent now. I don't want to say that there was an extreme difference between Muslims and Christians. It was illegal to discriminate. And I wasn't ever hurt in any way. But it just felt like this is not my place, this is not where I want to grow up, simple as that.
"When it comes to religion, everyone is equal in America. To me, I don't care who you believe in -- it could be a stone, it could be a star, it could be the sky. I don't care and I don't even talk about it, to be honest with you.
"Now, if you know me at all, you know that I don't usually believe in luck. I think you create your own luck. I believe in hard work and having a good head on your shoulders -- that creates the 'magic' of 'luck.'
"If you hear the words, 'you are lucky' more than twice, consider yourself a successful businessman. Because you can't get lucky all the time. This is one of the reasons I am where I am right now -- because of all the hard times and the hard work that I have been through.
"But I do say that I got lucky when I got my U.S. visa. I was the lucky brother out of three brothers who applied. I got a visiting visa, but I stayed. I managed to get my permanent paperwork through a petition.
"A couple of years after I came, my grandmother successfully petitioned my mom. So she and one of my brothers made it over. We lived in Granada Hills and I went to Kennedy High. I started working right away, from age thirteen. I was the stock boy and the janitor in a liquor store. I was getting paid like three or four dollars an hour back in those days.
"I share this story with everybody: My friends and I used to leave school and go to a Taco Bell. Everybody would buy a chicken burrito for like $1.99. But since I was working for $4 an hour, I would eat only a bean burrito for $.99. At a very early age I appreciated how hard it is to make it and how important it is to be financially careful.
"In the tenth grade, I had a family issue that made me drop out of high school. The environment and the culture where I was raised meant that I took on responsibilities. You have to take care of your family.
"I pursued business. After a couple of years as janitor, I moved up to cashier. From cashier, I started managing two liquor stores. Then three. In 1996 or 1997, my uncle and I found a location in Atwater Village and we bought a supermarket. It used to be called Atwater Ranch Market. We bought it 50-50. I owned 50% but only if I paid my uncle back in the future. In other words, unless I paid my share off, I didn't own anything.
"We did great. First or second year, I paid him off. By the fourth year, I paid off HIS 50%, I bought him out. Then in 2004, I bought the property. A lot of changes had been made in the community. A lot of my clients, Latinos in general, starting moving out and a lot of movie industry and upscale people, if you want to call them that, started moving in.
"So I had to change my business. I had two choices: remodel, renovate and maybe open an organic supermarket, or build a shopping center. I went with that one. I started looking for a bank or something to lease part of the property. And then I talked to a designer. I said, 'A coffee shop would be perfect here in the corner.' He said, 'Let's work on that.'
"He's an artist and he designed the way the shopping center looks now. In his original drawing, he put in 'Monkey Café' as an anchor tenant. I ran with that to brokers and had it promoted. I got Starbucks interested and we signed a long lease agreement. That was my first multi-million dollar contract. I was twenty-seven years old.
"H&R Block was my second big national tenant. When they decided to move out, I opened Link-n-Hops. We're thinking of turning this nationwide at some point. That's a long shot, but I like to think big and dream big.
"In 2006, I had a basement and didn't know what to do with the square footage. I came up with the idea of a wine cellar. In 2008, I opened 55 Degree Wine. We're very successful. We got picked by Best of L.A. from Angeleno Magazine and Best of City Search 2009. KCAL-9 nominated the wine bar in 2009. KTLA as well. This year we got Best of LA Weekly Reader's Choice.
"I've also been the President of the Atwater Village Chamber of Commerce for the past five or six years -- something to be proud of in the Syrian community.
"This is a community whose members need help right now.
"For the last three or four or five months -- I don't even know -- I have been trying to get my family in Homs to come here -- because my brother was threatened. The situation is very bad over there. Especially as a Christian, it is ten times worse.
"He has tried quite a few times and couldn't get a visa. I've tried from here to help through two congressmen, a state senator, a city councilmember. It's very unfortunate that Congress can vote on a war with potential to kill millions of people, but they can't bring a person that needs help from outside the country. It doesn't make sense.
"When I talk to people, I hear a lot of these bureaucratic answers of, 'Oh, why doesn't he go to another country?' I'm like, 'We are here. We are his family. We want to bring him here.'
"Staying in touch with my brother isn't easy. It depends on which city is being bombed and which communication is being cut. When they want to attack a certain city -- and Homs is one of the hottest areas -- they cut off all the juice.
"Then it comes back on for a day or two, and then they cut it again. We stay in touch on whatever is available. Sometimes we talk on Facebook, sometimes we talk on the phone, sometimes we can't talk at all. I'm trying to get some help. Hopefully someone does something before it's too late."
-- Andy Hasroun
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Top Photo: Andy Hasroun, at 55 Degree Wine. Photo courtesy Andy Hasroun
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy
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