ABOVE: Azra Khalfan-Kermali (second from right) of Plaques by Azra with (left to right) Jawad Khalfan, Borough President Donovan Richards and Chamber President and CEO Thomas Grech.
BY EVAN TRIANTAFILIDIS
Born and raised just two miles from Citi Field, Azra Khalfan-Kermali says she’s always had a front row seat to New York Mets games. But it wasn’t until recently that the small business owner actually got to experience her hometown team from inside the ballpark as part of “Queens Small Business Comeback Night” at Citi Field.
The current owner of Plaques by Azra, founded in 1974 by her parents, Khalfan-Kermali is one of the hundreds of local small businesses to receive a $20,000 grant funding thanks to Mets owner Steve Cohen and his wife Alexandra.
“During that time when I was kind of bootstrapped, I realized this funding helped me take one burden off of my shoulders,” said Khalfan-Kermali. “It allowed me to think outside the box and say that I got this.” Specializing in custom awards and signs, her business took a downward turn at the start of the pandemic, she said.
The scenes of nearby Elmhurst Hospital overwhelmed with patients was difficult to watch on the local news.
“To see the loss of life was absolutely heartbreaking, and to be a business owner and seeing the ups and downs, nothing really meant more to me than the lives that were being lost at that time,” said Khalfan-Kermali. “It felt like everything came to a screeching halt. It was very, very difficult to see all of that. I was content I could isolate myself and have my family around.”
Her family ended up contracting the virus and her business faced eviction notices . Khalfan-Kermali says she started using her time to join online webinars and looking for different ways to stay afloat.
“When I was asked to leave, when I was originally planning to buy the building, it was very heartbreaking,” Khalfan-Kermali. “I’ve had so many memories in that building.”
Looking to give back to the hospital where she and her son were born, Khalfan-Kermali kept in contact with Elmhurst Hospital to see if any emergency signage or protective gear was needed.
“I felt like that was my obligation given that I had the machinery and the ability to start creating PPE,” she said.
With the pandemic lingering, Khalfan-Kermali recently expanded her business to include “Away in a Box,” which aims to bridge different cultures through locally sourced products from other minority- and women-owned small businesses.
Inspired by her own worldly travels, Khalfan-Kermali says she hopes to bring the world to companies and educate their employees one nation at a time. For example, in her “Discover Dubai Kit” she includes the country’s traditional welcoming food and drink, dates and coffee. She hopes that education breeds acceptance.
“We’re sharing a way that they can actually experience the drink, taste, smell and sounds as an some educational experiences,” said Khalifan-Kermali. “We’re looking to cover the entire world. We have big dreams in that sense.”