As a little boy, Mosaic Natural founder Fayez Hammadi recalls, he watched his older brothers create mosaic artwork by hand. Their hometown, in Kafranbel, Syria, boasted ancient mosaic discoveries largely from the Byzantine period that informed their reproductions. “Byzantine mosaics are mosaics produced from the fourth to 15th centuries in and under the influence of the Byzantine Empire,” he says. “Mosaics were some of the most popular and historically significant art forms produced in the empire.”
His brothers re-created the art form by hand as young Hammadi stood by, watching and learning. Though they successfully reproduced the mosaic, he says, the work “wasn’t a great fit for the Syrian market because most people were unable to pay their own bills, let alone curating art. Also, Syria was and is still a closed country with no tourists, technology, logistics, or banking.”
But in the 1990s the brothers tried their luck in Lebanon, a geographically close market with fellow Arabic speakers, but open to the West and, importantly, open to tourism. Within a year, an art gallery exhibited a piece of the family’s art. It proved a turning point. “Within a few months, the mosaic was sold, and we started to get orders to reproduce ancient Roman mosaics as modern mosaic art. At that point, people began to see and understand this novelty business of handmade marble mosaic,” says Hammadi.
When Hammadi was old enough to join the business, they expanded into home decor, producing backsplashes and marble mosaic tiles and murals for use in the bathroom, kitchen, living room, and swimming pools; their staff grew beyond their family, and they also entered into new markets, like Saudi Arabia, Greece, and the UAE. The Mosaic Natural brand was born.
But over time living conditions in his hometown had “deteriorated,” says Hammadi, now 37, who recalls being taken from his home and beaten by the army. He fled to the U.S. in 2013, leaving behind his wife and young daughter and son, hoping that they would be able to reunite eventually. An earlier trip to the U.S. had left Hammadi impressed: “I was amazed and fascinated by how advanced and open the country is, and how easy and convenient it is to conduct business in the U.S., given all the tech advances. Although I was only in the U.S. for a short time that first visit, it felt like home. I’ve never had that feeling in my own country.”
But back in Syria, “Kafranbel was targeted and decimated systematically, on a daily basis,” he says, and his wife and children fled to Turkey, where they remain to this day. “Kafranbel became a ghost town, and all the residents were forced to leave under the intensity of bombing and loss of the most basic needs, such as water.”
The war also exerted “enormous impact” on the town and headquarters of Mosaic Natural, as internet, electricity, and transportation collapsed. “We were unable to ship our mosaics to our customers or dealers, and the Lebanese froze our bank accounts. Air raids started to target the town, which made people panic, and they did not want to leave their homes or go to work, and the whole area was completely paralyzed.” By mid-2014, the business as they knew it was destroyed. At its height, it had created jobs for over 600 families in a hometown of just 20,000 people.
One of Hammadi’s brothers moved to Turkey to try to reestablish the mosaic workshop in a place replete with materials and logistical solutions, though the language barrier proved a difficult challenge. “Turkey wasn’t a choice for us; it was the only safe place my brother could go to and start a business,” says Hammadi. By the time he arrived in the U.S., his goal was focused: to create as much opportunity as possible for the new iteration of the family’s business and the Syrian refugees they employed in Turkey.
Since then, the company has employed 23 Syrian refugees there. Currently Hammadi’s U.S. outpost is in New York, where he works extensively with interior designers. But Turkey remains top of mind.
“Turkey has over 4 million Syrian refugees, most of whom do not speak Turkish. Usually it’s very hard for those lacking the language skills to get dignified jobs. So some of the refugees are taken advantage of and abused—they work long hours in menial jobs, and they’re underpaid. I have been through the same circumstances most of those refugees have experienced, I feel them, and I want to offer well-compensated and full-time jobs to those artists who helped me grow our business before the war in Syria,” says Hammadi.
“To me,” he says, “those people are artists, and their gift and art must be appreciated.”