Refugees are people who had to leave their home countries for reasons unrelated to their wishes. The reasons are fears based on political, racial, religious, social persecutions, or even for birthplace or serious human rights violations.
These people have qualities and skills like any of us. When they come to another country, they face difficulties because of language, culture, habits and prejudice. Refugees are often seen as fugitives, i.e. individuals who did something wrong. This is not true. In fact, they are survivors trying to rebuild their lives somewhere they find safety and peace of mind.
The story we’re telling here is not new or recent, but it is worth to tell it and show that, when given the appropriate opportunity, refugees have much to contribute to the country that hosted them.
Get to know Thai Quang Nghia’s case of success. Born in Vietnam, he now owns a brand of shoes distributed in Brazil, which currently exports products to several countries.
Environment preservation and motivation to work are the ways that the Vietnamese Thai Quang Nghia found to pay back to the country that hosted him in 1979. Rescued by Petrobras Jurupema tanker, on October of the previous year, Nghia was adrift after fleeing his homeland – just gone out of its independence war and dominated by the socialist regime. Four months later, spent in Singapore to regularize his situation, he was given aid by the UN and a permanent visa to live in Brazil. Here, he founded the Domini group with brands Ômely, Koan and Goóc – company that makes sandals out of recycled tires.
Upon arriving in Brazil, Nghia had many expectations, but faced a number of difficulties. “I was a student, without qualifications, jobs, language, anything,” says him, who at that time was only 21. He was given a financial aid of US$50 a month by the UN and lived in a lodging, along with other refugees. “I had to save money, would eat bread and Miojo (instant noodles) in the afternoon and in the evening”. By saving that money, Nghia could buy dictionaries and books for the course, as he had been granted a scholarship.
As his objective was studying, he lived a double journey for several years. He began working as an assistant in a photocopy business and would walk three to six kilometers to not spend money on bus tickets. “I had this friend who worked at a gas station and made much more money, but I remained in my job because I had more free time to study”, he says. Thanks to this effort, a year later he was hired as a computer operator at a bank, responsible for industry nights. “It was my first signed-on job and it gave me the opportunity to learn even more Portuguese”. He would read many manuals and dictionaries to report to the board.
With the money he saved, Nghia made a loan to a friend who owned a small purse factory. In 1986, with the Cruzado Plan (Brazilian monetary policy), the company went bankrupt and to recover the money, he kept 400 purses and two machines for himself. “I had to get out on the streets to sell the products and get a value much higher than the loan. In 15 days I quit the job in the bank”, he says. The Mathematics course in University of São Paulo was also left behind. After two months buying and retailing bags, he began to manufacture them and opened his own business. He became supplier of parts for the Avon Moda & Casa catalogue, and then was invited by the company to enter the footwear industry in 2000, due to the quality of products already offered.
The foundation of Goóc (root, in Vietnamese), in 2004, was Nghia’s return to his origins, now making sandals out of recycled tires, inspired by a type of sandal made during the Independence War. At the time, the scarcity of resources forced the Vietnamese to make shoes out of tires found in the fields. They would heat up a knife to cut the soles, and with rods made of bamboo they would make holes for the strips made of air chambers. “It wasn’t out of ecological awareness, it was out of necessity. But I thought it was a very nice story and I saw that at the same time, I could help Brazil”, he says.
Sold as souvenirs in Vietnam, Nghia realized that the sandals had good acceptance among Americans and Europeans, which led him to invest further in the business. The challenge now was turning a handcraft production into a large-scale one. “I went after the vulcanization industry and found out I could use tire powder, which was already used in carpet and floors”. With an eye on the potential of the Brazilian market, whose consumption is around 400 million pairs of slippers a year, the businessman asked suppliers for a new formula to ensure better quality to production.
It took long for the product to be liked by Brazilians. “When I launched it in São Paulo, the profile of merchants’ consumers was more conventional. It was young people who identified with our product”, said Nghia. In the first year, 1.1 million pairs were sold, and more than double – 2.5 million – in the second. Therefore, the entrepreneur began to see his dream of collaborating with the environment coming true, paying back for the welcoming he had here. Since then, Goóc recycled over 2 million tires, producing 10 million pairs of sandals. “Our goal is to turn Brazil into a benchmark for recycled shoes by 2014”, he says. The country has the largest number of users and is the runner-up at most recycling tires.
Currently, about 34 million useless tires are discarded each year in Brazil. They are parts that cannot be refurbished and therefore end up in the recycling chain as input for industrial applications. They are used in the making of concrete and asphalt, replacing the gravel, reused in the manufacture of strips, or used as fuel. Data from the National Association of Tire and Rubber Artifacts Recycling Business (Arebop) show that 241 tons were recycled in 2006 – about 24 million tires. “This liability can be reset. We have enough business for recycling, but need consideration from manufacturers, since they are responsible for the destination of the material”, says José Carlos Arnaldi, executive director of the entity.
The impact of Goóc’s action doesn’t interfere only in those numbers. Nghia gives several lectures as a way to spread awareness for sustainable development and entrepreneurship. “Sharing the experience is a help to young people. I tell them to go for the fight, because life is not easy for anyone”. Persistent, he started with a bankrupt business and achieved success with social environment responsibility. Out of difficulty with the daily language, has created a dictionary himself that eventually became the first Vietnamese-Portuguese in Brazil.
Son of a wealthy family in Vietnam, Nghia studied in a French Catholic school. When he came to Brazil, he would translate words from Portuguese to French and then to his native language. “I started writing the dictionary after four months. There was no way I would walk around with so many of them in my hands”. The first edition had 15 thousand entries, and the second, completed in 1999, containing 35 thousand words, was a promise to Our Lady of Lourdes. “I prayed to be able to get back to college and worked for a year without holidays and weekends, to do the latest one”. He ranked 10th place in the vestibular test for Administration in Mackenzie University and printed 500 copies of the new version, which he gave out for free even for Vietnamese authorities. His accent is still strong, but he knows very well how to do things the Brazilian way.