For Tahsin Khalaf and his family, opening the Lincoln Mediterranean Market fulfilled a lifelong dream of theirs.
His parents had opened a store when they were living in refugee camps in Syria in the 1990s only for it to close six months after opening it.
It wasn’t until July 2018 when their dream of opening a market became reality and the Lincoln Mediterranian Market was officially open for business.
Khalaf’s parents ran away to Syria from Iraq in 1991, only to return back to Iraq after a pardon from then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, according to Tahsin’s sister Gulie, who was born and raised in Syria. They ran back to Syria three months after returning to Iraq and became Yazidi refugees.
Gulie described living in the camps as a never-ending camping trip.
”It’s like going camping, except it’s not over within two or three days, or when the nice weather goes away,” she said. “You’re stuck in there whether the weather is harsh and cold or blazing hot.”
In the camps Gulie and Tahsin’s family lived in, the water had to be brought by water tanks and would be put in community tanks, Gulie said.
“Some days, the water didn’t even come,” she said. “We had to be careful with how much we used.”
The Khalafs moved from Syria to the United States on Sept. 29, 1998, residing first in Atlanta. They moved from Atlanta to Buffalo, New York, in the summer of 2000 until moving to Lincoln in 2007.
Tahsin said since moving to the U.S, there had never been a window of opportunity for them to begin the process of opening it due to issues with finances, time, finding a right location and motivation.
“It’s a long term investment,” he said. “It’s not something you can just decide to do and six months to a year later, say, ‘Ok, I’m done.”
Tahsin said he knew he wanted the store to be different than the ones he had seen in Syria and the U.S.
“A lot of them didn’t meet the standards we wanted or the standards of other grocery stores,” he said. “Some of them were a little bit overcrowded, unorganized, dark, and [lacked good] customer service.”
In 2017, after working for four years to save up money, Tahsin said he and his family knew they were ready to start the process of opening the Lincoln Mediterranean Market.
“It was either now or never,” he said. “We had been thinking about for so long, now it was either time to do it or postpone it for another five to 10 years.”
Tahsin and his family officially opened the market on July 21, 2018, with the intention of offering items not readily found in other stores. In the store, you can find a wide variety of items, from vegetables to hookahs.
“If you’re Italian, Greek, Moroccan, Egyptian, you’re going to find products that come from your country,” Gulie said. “We wanted to help out those people and serve their needs.”
Tahsin said working alongside family at the market makes running it feel less like work.
“We have a big family and we don’t get to spend much time together or hang out,” “When we come here and work, we have that opportunity to hang out and work at the same time.”
Over the past year since opening, the Khalafs has seen their store double both product and customer-wise.
“It shows us that we were doing something right in the beginning and we’re doing something right at the moment,” he said. “Seeing that we have doubled our store capacity, that lets us know it has improved regardless.”
Despite the market’s success, there have been challenges. Tahsin said Mediterranean food is relatively new to the Midwest and most of the ports are in the East and West coasts. To combat this problem, the Khalafs have to find other Mediterranean companies to buy from and pick up the products themselves.
“Most of those companies [ports] don’t even deliver or have the connection to deliver here,” he said.
Despite the challenges, the Khalafs remain committed to serving not only the Mediterranean community, but all of Lincoln as a whole, Tahsin said.
“We wanted to be a store where it doesn’t matter if you’re familiar with the Mediterranean or not, you can come in and feel that this is a special store, and like any other store in the city,” he said. “We opened up with the intention of a store for everybody and we want to hold that idea.”