Blog Post

Five Lessons I Learned Working With Syrian Refugee Founders and Why It Is All Relevant to the Ukraine Crisis

July 20, 2022

By Ahmad Sufian Bayram

8 min

I have been working in the field of refugee economic integration for more than a decade now. During that time, I have experienced firsthand the challenges and opportunities that refugee founders face in host countries. Part of my work has been to help vulnerable communities in refuge gain access to foundership opportunities and build a supportive environment. 

Through writing and speaking to dozens of fora, I advocate for foundership as a clear path for refugees to thrive beyond dependence on aid. After all, the Syrian refugee crisis, to name just one prolonged misery, has evolved little beyond the sustained equation of humanitarian needs and aid, begetting, even more needs and more aid. Over the last couple of years, we have arrived at a point where there is more dependence on aid than there is aid available.

Businesses, and refugees that own them, can solve that problem. Just like Bureaucrazy, an online app here in Germany that helps people arriving in the country navigate the different bureaucratic systems. Or Sharqi Shop, which is an online platform marketing artifacts and items handmade by refugees to the whole world. I have seen and heard numerous such bright ideas. I have witnessed how founders impacted by conflict and displacement are capable of producing effective solutions.

Take the 6th of October City in Egypt. Syrian founders have helped turn that small urban community in the northwest of Cairo into bustling corridors of Syrian restaurants and grocery stores. The area is now called “Little Damascus.” In Turkey, a total of 10K+ new Syrian companies were founded in 2021, compared to 157 in 2012. 

Studies have shown that the newcomer founders are more likely than natives to start a new business, yet the survival rate of their businesses is lower than the natives’ due to the many challenges they face.

Lessons from Syria to Ukraine

It is never too early to help refugees get back on their feet and restart a productive life. The horrors of the Ukraine situation have led to the fastest-growing refugee crisis in living memory. It is a disaster for the Ukrainian population and a tragedy that will burden neighboring countries. But amidst the chaos and mass exodus, there are lessons to be considered from what happened more than 10 years ago and more than 1,000 miles to the east.

Here is what I have learned from working with Syrian refugee founders that I can see happening in Ukraine already.

1. Change your perspective.  


I once met a Syrian entrepreneur who lived in Germany. He was agonizing about an important meeting with a high-profile investor that he had missed because he was worried about his family back home. He had lost contact with them a week before the anticipated meeting. It turned out that the lack of communication on his family’s side was due to a power cut in the area. The deal was later canceled, as the venture capitalist was worried that such a situation might occur again and hamper the running of the business. 

But refugee founders are eager to make it work. They will leave no stone unturned to find an income to survive the first shocks. They have a real desire to get back to a normal, productive business routine.

Refugee founders focus on sectors with low entry requirements where they can provide value based on their cultural background. They are often focused on securing a regular income and tend to show flexibility in integrating into their new communities by providing useful goods and services and rejuvenating supply chains.

For many, there’s no option but to find a full-time job to feed their families and business ideas at the same time. 

Understanding the situation and the roots of the challenges that refugee founders face is key to providing better support and avoiding unconscious bias. Promoting transparency and a clear process in your program to ensure refugee founders have been hired and understood, and considering hiring refugees as part of your team or board, can go a long way toward achieving mutual benefit.

2. Understand the profiles.  


Through research I have done and my frequent interactions with refugee founders, it has become increasingly clear to me that there are common challenges and features that categorize refugee founders into three main profiles: based in camps, founders in urban settings, and portfolio founders.

People in each category experience different challenges from those in other groups. While planning and implementing interventions, economic development programs must understand the differences between refugee founders and their various needs to ensure efficacy.

While governments focus mostly on attracting founders with more means, those who have sufficient resources and are able to deploy them to hire local people and intend to ease a number of the challenges; however, they leave many others behind with limited support.    

Entrepreneur organizations and governments should prioritize inclusiveness over effectiveness, especially toward underrepresented minorities like refugees. Identifying a percentage in every program that goes to that underrepresented community can be a good start. 

3. Empowering refugee women founders is a priority.


As the conflict displaced Syrian communities and, in many tragic cases, separated family members, a growing number of Syrian women had to support their families, either as primary supporters or by supplementing the family income. 

Syrian female business owners make up 35.7% (2021) of total businesses, a huge increase from a pre-war sample that put the number at 4.4% in 2009 and doubles the 17.22% reached in 2016. 

In many situations, having lost their male partners, women found themselves as the only work-age survivors left to support their families. Through fighting a stereotypical image that dominated for decades, they have become trusted and productive members of their communities. 

The Ukrainian culture and heritage might be different, but we have seen similar trends recorded in the first waves of displacement from Ukraine, with women and children making up the majority of the exodus. Those women will need support to get going where conditions allow. Business programs have to put those with the experience or the ambition at the top of their priorities. 

4. Refugees need investment, not just training. 


The inability to locate funding sources to help build and scale their businesses is a chronic problem complicated by years of displacement and a long COVID-19 shutdown. Refugees and their businesses have found themselves on the brink. The crisis, for them, is existential.

Syrian business owners and startup founders said they couldn’t find a way to secure funding to scale or even sustain their ventures. They feel left out by a bailout and financial support mechanism to which they are invisible. 

While early-stage businesses around the world rely on personal savings or family and friends as the primary source of financial support to launch their business, refugee founders often find no one around them to rely on. Their families have gone through similar displacement experiences and are in equally difficult conditions. The process of bootstrapping, starting a business practically from scratch, and relying on personal savings, takes extensive amounts of time and patience, which refugees cannot afford as they grapple with the struggle for their livelihood.

I asked 270 Syrian refugee-led businesses in neighboring countries about this. I learned that only six founders had managed to raise any funding from investors.

While many organizations try to support entrepreneurs, they start with creating a training program. While important, this won’t do enough to solve the root problem. Providing refugees with financing can help foster an entrepreneurial spirit, help economies grow, and improve inclusivity and diversity. Closing off financial options to refugees risks losing essential sources of potential service providers, as well as job and tax generators.

5. Think outside the box.


Dealing with the refugee crisis is a huge challenge, and it should involve people from both host and refugee communities working together to create greater opportunities. We need to break down walls between people and build an inclusive and collaborative community and an exchange of time, experiences and expertise in order to achieve mutually beneficial results. 

Technology has a massive role to play in creating that transformation from need-centered aid to an approach based on what the market needs. Blockchain has the potential to disrupt many industries and change the lives of many. It could help millions of refugees by solving some of the most critical problems they face, such as documentation, aid distribution, and job creation. There have been some great examples of using digital tools to help refugees access cash and enjoy some economic security. 

So many of the refugees I have met and spoken to are exceptional in how they deal with their endless dilemmas and manage to make something extraordinary out of a harsh experience. They have shown strong resilience in navigating life’s constraints and limitations. Having been through hardship themselves, refugees have a lot to offer from a perspective the majority of us have not experienced. The world is looking at another tragedy, but it should not forget that those people who left everything behind will not give up. They only need access to the tools to rebuild their lives.

Let’s discuss

Related Content