10 refugees who will change your perception of entrepreneurship

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Despite significant hardships, refugees are pushing the limits of what most people recognize as the general entrepreneur spirit. There is a resilience among refugee communities that enables them to thrive, not just to survive, and to be creative members of society. And why shouldn’t they?

Before anything else, refugees are people – fathers, mothers, sisters, cousins, and friends – people who are not waiting for humanitarian agencies to create opportunities, but who want to create their own. In reality, refugees create employment opportunities for themselves and in some instances for their host country nationals as well.

We’ve rounded up ten stories of refugees who are creating opportunity from very little and are portraying strength in some of the most difficult situations.

1. Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp gets pizza delivery service

A Syrian entrepreneur, Abu Mahmood, has brought a slice of normal life to refugees and aid workers in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp by starting the camp’s first pizza shop – the Pizzeria of Peace, or Mu’ajanat Esalam in Arabic. Stationed on Za’atari’s bustling Champs-Élysées, Abu is bringing the joy of pizza to both refugees and aid workers. Naserddine Touaibia, a Public Information and Mass Communication Associate for UNHCR, explains:

“They are not the type of people that would sit around, cross their hands and wait for you to do something for them. They are actually very creative and very active.”

2. Creating a video game arcade business out of old technology

In most parts of the world, refugees are not allowed to work. But Mohammed Osman Ali is a refugee in Uganda, and there, he legally runs a video game arcade and a variety store. Ali runs a kind of video game arcade for other refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia and fellow Somalis. He’s invested his profits in five more PlayStation’s, five more old TVs to expand his growing business. And when you think about how Ali came to this camp five years ago with nothing, hidden in the back of a truck, fleeing a war in Somalia, it’s pretty remarkable how far he’s come. Now he’s parlayed this PlayStation arcade into an adjoining variety store that’s stocking house paint and nails and little girls dresses.

3. Facilitating hope through food and a family restaurant

Masika, 47, fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after her husband was killed just over two years ago. She eventually made her way to Sherkole refugee camp in Ethiopia where she lives with her mother and five children. Masika’s big break came a year ago, when she was asked to provide food for 150 people at an International Women’s Day event in the camp. It was the biggest job she had ever done and the day led to more contracts. Every day, she bakes 1,500 small loaves of bread which she sells in the restaurant, local market and around the camp. In the restaurant, she and her family serve beef, rice and beans for 20 birrs or fish, vegetables and wheat ugali (a starchy staple).

4. How one refugee is bringing 21st-century survival skills to Dadaab

Mohammed Bashir Sheik was four when he arrived at Dadaab refugee camp with his mother and sister 18 years ago. He has never left Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex, but that has not stopped him learning how to create and host websites, set up a small business and teach others how to use computers. When he is not out interviewing people for a newspaper produced in the camp, he can usually be found in the Hag youth information and communications technology (ICT) laboratory, in a corner of Ifo2 camp, an extension of Hagadera, one of the three camps that make up the sprawling Dadaab complex.

“I borrowed $300 from a friend to buy a domain from a US-based company and was soon in business,” he says.

For web design he earns about $800 per project, while web hosting can bring in up to $300 per month. He has also set up a shop in a makeshift canteen in the camp, where he sells groceries and stationery.

5. Disability is not inability – refugee turns entrepreneur hours after fleeing

Days after he and tens of thousands of other civilians fled their native Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this month, Adam had set up shop under a large tree just inside Uganda, repairing the cell phones and radios his fellow refugees brought with them. Never disheartened by being paralyzed in his legs by polio as a child, he took up repairing shoes – without any encouragement from his parents. “I just encouraged myself,” he says from the primitive wheelchair that brought him to safety in Uganda.

“I realized I was just sitting there doing nothing and I realized I can’t live like this.”

Five years ago, at the age of 30, he broadened his skills by persuading a friend to teach him the art and science of electronics repairs. You’ll find him beneath a tree, his soldering iron heating on a bed of charcoal, working his magic on decrepit cell phones and radios that are a vital lifeline for the nearly 17,000 refugees here.

6. A wedding dress shop helps refugees continue with their lives 

Um Murad has found a way to bring happiness to other refugees in the camp through opening her own wedding dress shop and beauty center in Za’atari refugee camp. You might be asking yourself – why would refugees need wedding dresses and a beauty salon? Life does not stop when refugees enter a camp and they usually try to find ways to make their lives more normal –including falling in love and getting married.

“Life goes on, even when you’re a refugee. People marry.”

“This shop has been in action for 13 months and I’ve prepared about 700 brides in that time. The best thing about having the business is that I interact with many people, it takes me away from all of the misery that we have been living in.” says Murad.

7. A refugee’s mission to bring the Peace Pastry shop to Syrian refugees

Zakaria, 43, poses with a tray of mini pizzas in the Salam (Peace) pastry shop on Za’atari’s main market street. The popular store employs five refugee workers and offers bakery treats such as man’oucheh (sandwich), croissants and samosas as well as musakhan, a dish of meat, onions, spices and bread. Zakaria, who has been a pastry chef for 30 years, fled Syria in November 2012.

8. Learning a skill catalyzed opportunity and entrepreneurship

Amneh Yakum Abbakah, a 40-year-old grandmother and resident of the Djabal refugee camp, has become a successful entrepreneur. Amneh has been living in this camp in Eastern Chad since it opened a decade ago to absorb the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Darfur. Amneh learned to weave through a training program for refugees and soon began taking the baskets and mats she made to the market. As advised, each time she came back with some extra money she put it back into her business. Soon Amneh had saved enough to open her own shop, where best-sellers include sugar, tea, and millet. She is now able to supplement her family’s meager food rations and get special additional things, like spices.

9. Syrian refugee opens her business to other displaced Syrian women

After Oum Ali fled Syria with her six children, she needed a way to help provide for her family while still remaining at home to care for them. Her business idea flourished after she started cooking for friends  in the camp where she lives in Lebanon. Soon enough Oum was helping other women who have fled their home country, saying “It doesn’t matter to me where they are from originally, as long as they are Syrian refugees. We started to cook for restaurants, companies and Lebanese families.”

“We count on ourselves and have courage to start a business here. My dream is to see a lot of Syrian women working and not needing to ask for help.”

10. Bringing electricity to the Nakivale Refugee Settlement

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, operated by UNHCR, is filled with refugees who have fled violence, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s also filled with entrepreneurs. In 2012, three refugees, who are co-founders of Umeme Group, were given a maize mill by a German NGO. When the maize market became flooded, they converted the machine into an electricity generator, and now sell power to 27 fellow refugees and to new businesses that require electricity, such as a soft drink shop, and a little cinema.

Do you know any stories of refugee entrepreneurs? Tell us in the comments below.

Photo credit: UNHCR/S.Baldwin


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