How A Small-Business Owner Draws Strength And Hope From History

Matt Khatamov is co-owner of FiDi Cleaners at 89 Washington Street. Like other small-business owners he is grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, but for Khatamov the emotional component is particularly challenging. In March, as the city faced shutdown, his father passed away. 

Thirty years ago the family left their home in the former Soviet Republic, when Khatamov was 13. “We didn’t want to leave — we were forced to leave,” he explained. “We had limited money to take with us, only about $1,300 by today’s standards.” They moved to Brooklyn and initially relied on public assistance. “My dad said, ‘We’re not going to live the way we did over there, dependent on the government,’” Khamatov said. Instead, the family would start its own dry-cleaning business.

They learned a new language and how business works, and they forged friendships in the neighborhood. Matt’s father worked 80 to 90 hours a week, and Khatamov’s mom, who passed away three years ago, was the backbone of the operation. “It started with the needle and the sewing machine,” Khatamov recalled. “Everyone next to my dad — my mom, my sisters, me.” Eventually they opened the successful Mr. Rafael in Brooklyn, followed by two thriving stores in Lower Manhattan. 

Now, in the COVID era, sales have dropped more than 80% and “it feels like I could lose everything,” Khatamov said. But he draws strength from home videos in which his father shares the wisdom he learned from his own dad, a WWII veteran who marched by foot all the way to Germany in the Soviet forces. Matt shared one piece of wisdom, for example:

“My father always reminded me, ‘The good days pass, and the bad days also pass. Nothing is permanent. You should always be ready for the day when it will turn. Have a skill, and anywhere you end up in the world, you can always pick up your tools and start your life.’ He taught me to stay balanced, so I could stand when I needed to stand.”

Now Khatamov knows he can stand strong, and is working to build, create, renovate and expand as much as he’s able. 

“Going through this in America, smaller-scale things have happened,” said Khatamov, referring to September 11, Superstorm Sandy and the Great Recession. “But this is the biggest one of them all. It was the same thing for us 30 years ago. It wasn’t our choice to have any of this happen. But for those kinds of days, you must be ready to get up. That’s what my father taught me.”