From refugee to real estate mogul: How Tahani Aburaneh became a self-made millionaire

Tahani Aburaneh went from life in a refugee camp in Jordan, to being married and sent to Canada without speaking English at 15, and has become a fearlessly successful entrepreneur in Ontario. (Supplied)
Tahani Aburaneh went from life in a refugee camp in Jordan, to being married and sent to Canada without speaking English at 15, and has become a fearlessly successful entrepreneur in Ontario. (Supplied)

When self-made millionaire Tahani Aburaneh looks back her humble beginnings, even she sometimes can’t believe her unlikely trajectory.

Born to Palestinian parents in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, Aburaneh was 15 when, without any prior knowledge, she learned on her way home from school one day that she was going to be married, right then and there. The man—who, according to accepted cultural practice at the time, happened to be a cousin—was living in Canada, where she would move shortly thereafter, without a word of English, and start Grade 10.

That was in 1981. Aburaneh went on to not only finish high school in Cambridge, Ont. but also to complete a business-administration program at Conestoga College and have two children.

Today, Aburaneh, 52, is a real-estate mogul and entrepreneur who has founded five companies, including a development company, an investment company, and an educational initiative called Tahani International.

In 2013, she received a Premier’s Award by Colleges Ontario. The author of Real Estate Riches: A Money-Making Game Plan for the Canadian Investor, she is considered one of the country’s leading experts on real-estate investing.

All this from someone who can recall being helped by international aid groups as a child.

“We got help from United Nations’ refugee organizations,” Aburaneh says. “They gave out pencils and pencil cases and running shoes, little things like that. Here in Canada, we look at those people as being so poor and so humble, and I was one of them. I was one of those people and look where I am right now.”

Aburaneh admits she’s sometimes overcome with emotion when she thinks about the way her life has unfolded. She says that what has helped her cope with so many challenges in life is faith in herself.

“One of the things I remember as a young girl was talking to my dad [before coming to Canada] and crying,” she says. “But my dad always instilled in me this belief: he said, ‘Tahani, you can do anything you want to.’ It stayed with me, the feeling that I’m capable of doing things. I believe that’s what got me through all of the hardship throughout my life.”

After finishing college, Tahani found it difficult to find work at first; she ended up taking on various short-term positions, including one at an insurance company. Later, while helping one of her eight siblings open a store in Cambridge, she happened to meet the manager of a real-estate company who worked across the street. He saw in her the kind of personable, helpful qualities that would enable her to do well in the industry, and she ended up giving real estate a try.

While she admits she didn’t fall in love with the field at first, that changed when she met a real-estate investor.

“In my mind, it triggered something,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I would love to do that.’ I liked the idea of looking at a house as a business. It intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more.”

She purchased her first property, a semi-detached home, then began selling real-estate investments. She fell in love with the business and excelled at it.

By 2005, Aburaneh had gained solid enough financial footing to leave her unhappy marriage. She continued to sell investment properties, only now she was a single mom.

“I became so focused,” she says. “I was a machine. I was selling for builders; I was working at night. Four and a half years later, I paid off my whole mortgage, and I still had other properties. It was an incredible transformation at the time, and I fell in love with what I do. And I became a mama bear: I had to do whatever it took to take care of my kids.”

Play it like a woman

Aburaneh says that she has never felt the need to “play it like a man” in the business world. Rather, she has always made a point of making sure people she works with understand her “why”—the driving force behind her dogged work ethic being her children.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that women get intimidated when they’re in a room with other men,” she says. “It’s almost like they try and disappear. For me, no. I looked at all these men as if they were my brothers. All of these men were trying to do well and give to their families, and I was able to connect with them on that level.

“More women need awareness, need to think that they can be the employers,” she adds. “The first time I started a building development with my development company, I had all these men working for me—plumbers, electricians… It was almost an out-of-body experience; I was employing all these people with families.”

Aburaneh’s latest venture is called Females in Real Estate (FIRE). It’s an application-based mentorship program for women who want to learn how to build financial independence through real estate. It’s a more specialized version of the free FIRE Facebook community for women she started.

Aburaneh was motivated to reach out to women because of research that came out of the U.S. National Institute of Retirement Security two years ago. It found that women were 80 per cent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, while women age 75 to 79 were three times more likely to fall below the poverty level compared to their male counterparts.

“I truly believe every woman deserves the right to feel financially secure,” she says. “I want to help as my many women as I can to get at least one property, if not more, and to understand the power of that.

“If I die tomorrow and I do good for other women in this life, then I know I’ve lived a life worth living,” Aburaneh says. “I do believe that if I could do it with everything I’ve gone through, then anybody can do it.”

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