Raif Fleihan sits outside of the Airport Inn Lakeside with black Crocs, a lanyard that says, “no one home!” and a Panasonic landline with the word “jackass” in digital lettering.
He drinks a green drink — not black enough to be coffee and not light enough to be a cocktail — and opens up a red pack; there’s only a couple of smokes left.
Fleihan looks territorial by nature. After years of owning and selling businesses, trying to make it in a foreign country that he migrated to as a young man and defending himself and his motel, his face exudes hostility when a stranger roams onto the property.
Generally speaking, the label of the Airport Inn has been disgusting, dirty, uninhabitable; that it’s a stain amongst the pristine backdrop of Lake Country as drivers charge into Winfield off Highway 97.
Coffee will be offered to people that Fleihan likes. If he likes you, he will talk to you.
He might offer you a smoke but it depends on how many he has left in his pack. He’s been told before that he is rude.
“I have one friend of mine, seven-foot-tall, bald-headed,” he said. “I met him by accident in ‘71. I cook for him.”
Sometimes he gets a little bit off-topic.
Fleihan is from a town about 20 minutes away from Beirut in Lebanon. He moved to Canada with his brother when he was in his 20s.
He developed a hard-working mentality and over the years, he owned and sold a number of businesses before attaining what is now known as the Airport Inn.
In 2017, the motel was shut down for health and safety purposes and Fleihan was denied a business license for the property.
Mayor James Baker said Lake Country’s fines aren’t enough to keep businesses like the Airport Inn accountable so now the district has a motion brewing that could board up the building.
It has yet to reach council’s desk, according to Karen Miller, the communications officer for the District of Lake Country.
“We have to be concerned about public safety,” Mayor Baker said.
The motel is currently undergoing renovations for infrastructure the district has deemed unsanitary or faulty.
Fleihan said his business only does monthly rentals now. This way, he thinks, no one can blame him for staying in a gungy motel suite they booked online.
According to Baker, there were talks about the province acquiring the land, but BC Housing claimed they don’t recall any such plans.
Although, that is how the property is being treated now. With the monthly rental structure, Fleihan runs a supportive housing service for people with low income.
Often, he said, he doesn’t even charge people rent and he just gets them to help out with the property.
“The people who work and serve every day, they can’t afford to have a $20-million home.”
He leans when he comes to a conclusory statement, such as this one. “The poor people can’t figure out how to fit in.”
Fleihan — whether he identifies as someone who can fit in or not — sticks up for the marginalized, according to one resident who has laundry to do.
Two “darlings” are spoken. One from Fleihan to the tenant, who was dressed in pyjamas and a ponytail on her day off, and one from the tenant for Fleihan.
She walks from her unit up to the main reception at the head of the property.
Her name is Stacie Brinkman and she asks her landlord for a smoke, but he only has one left.
She said that’s OK, she might have one in her room. He gives her his last one anyways.
“You’re so good to me,” she responds.
She said Fleihan is misunderstood by the public and so is the business.
“Everyone in here is one big happy family,” she said. “It’s not a perfect place, but it’s not disgusting. It’s not a run-down place — it’s my f–king home.”
Brinkman said she would probably be living on the streets if it weren’t for Fleihan. It’s something she is very grateful for.
“He cares for people.”
BC Housing does not refer people to the inn but has said that often times, other affordable, supportive or emergency shelters might if they are fully occupied.
“For years, investments in affordable and supportive housing did not keep up with community needs and many people have been left with nowhere to go,” said Tracy Wells, senior communications advisor for BC Housing.
“In limited circumstances, housing providers may refer clients to an appropriate hotel on a temporary basis.”
The motel, whose infamy rose from its reputation as a bargain inn, is often the recipient of people who may not have many other options to go.
Fleihan said he doesn’t really know how many people stay at the motel; it changes every day.
“You don’t need a license; they can keep that garbage.”
His approach to business is more ad hoc and people-centric rather than being about formalities and regulations.
The inside reception area is filled with antiques, drapes, a piano and a functioning TV that has a sizable black mark on the screen — it looks as if something or someone punched it.
Fleihan doesn’t care because he watches the news on that TV.
He said he doesn’t like the Lake Country Calendar very much, either.
There are pictures with him and a political hero of his, former B.C. premier Bill Bennett, who he said he had a very strong relationship with and was the only politician he’s ever really liked.
They line the wooden desk that is also strewn with old receipts, mail and letters.
He damns computers and doesn’t bother to use them anymore.
Red packages are shielded behind the cupboard of a metal encasement. It is his stash of cigarettes.
At the same moment, another man who helps Fleihan with the property brings cheese and crackers.
If this happens, Fleihan would like if you eat the crackers.
Good hospitality is important to him.