THE BLOG
22/06/2015 08:26 BST | Updated 22/06/2016 06:59 BST

Refugee Businesses Defy Scrounger Stereotype

Entrepreneur Adnan Al-Khatib has spent the last five years trying to get his geo-location app up-and-running but its progress has been halted by the Syrian civil war.

Khatib is British but he was living in Damascus when the country descended into conflict. He fled, fearing for his life, but had to leave his company's two Syrian co-founders behind. His team have since escaped to the United Arab Emirates; they wanted to come to the UK but it was too difficult to get in.

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Khatib says displaced Syrian entrepreneurs could boost the UK job market (Photo by Morgan Meaker)

Khatib is frustrated by the UK's reluctance to accept refugees from Syria. He says: "Immigration is economically important, it's central to how the UK works. This country doesn't have natural resources and we don't have as much space to be competitive with manufacturing."

There are nearly four million Syrian refugees worldwide but under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Programme, only 187 people had been resettled in the UK as of March 2015.

"Immigration is economically important, it's central to how the UK works." - Adnan Al-Khatib

He speeds through the history of East London, illustrating how integral immigration has been to the area's development; from the Indian community introducing curries to Brick Lane to the Italians bringing modern finance to Canary Wharf.

He understands that the British public are worried about competition, but he argues: "Entrepreneurs generate growth. One businessman could generate jobs for three more people." He reels off a list of successful Syrian entrepreneurs who have been displaced. He includes Ronaldo Mouchawar, founder of Souq.com - the Arab world's equivalent of Amazon. None of them are here in Britain. Khatib says it's nearly impossible to get in.

An economic burden or benefit?

Burgeoning British nationalism illustrates how many people are nervous of accepting too many refugees, fearing competition for jobs, housing and services. But academics at Oxford University have argued that well-integrated refugees can bring economic benefits to their host countries.

There are examples of refugees setting up successful businesses in the UK but Ian Agnew, who runs enterprise courses for refugees in England's North West, says it's not happening a lot. "There are a lot of language barriers and issues around the validity of qualifications." He talks about established lawyers who have spent three years re-sitting their law degree, even if they are fully qualified in their home country. And, of course, this process is expensive.

Converting qualifications can slow progress

Adnan Medjedovic and Edin Basic are Bosnian refugees and the founders of Firezza - a gourmet pizza delivery service. The pair settled in the UK in 1992, just as Bosnia slid into its first year of conflict. They found work in restaurants and Starbucks branches before opening Firezza nine years later. Today, the business is steaming forward - they now have 16 branches in London, one in Royal Tunbridge Wells and last year the company bought out a competitor, Pizza Lupa.

Medjedovic and Basic's success challenges the idea that refugees are a drain on the economy. But they are just two in a long list of entrepreneurs who have fled conflict and created profitable businesses in the UK: Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer's fame was a Jewish refugee from Poland, while Rashmi Thakrar, once a child refugee from Uganda, is now the man behind Tilda Rice.

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The founders of Firezza spoke little English when they came to the UK from Bosnia, now their Pizza empire consists of 17 branches (Photo by Morgan Meaker)

Fayrus moved from Somalia to Holland as an asylum seeker. She was granted Dutch citizenship before moving to England as an EU citizen. She is now one of 13 Chickpea Sisters - a cooking collective of women who came to Europe as refugees.

The women are from all over the world, from Eritrea to Sudan. Based in South-West London, the group cater for events - cooking food from their home countries. Fayrus is working another job part-time. She needs to supplement the money she makes through the Chickpea Sisters but she's hopeful that this work could become full-time in the future. "We're becoming much busier now," she says.

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The women behind catering company, The Chickpea Sisters say business is doing well (Photo provided by CARAS)

Fayrus believes any refugee could start a business: "It's not difficult as long as the will is there and the funding is there." But funding is often difficult to secure. The Chickpea Sisters began with the help of the Klevis Kola Foundation, which has now rebranded itself as CARAS. "They helped us from the beginning, we can't thank them enough. They helped us get our food hygiene certificates and supported us financially."

Alexa Sidor, a project officer at CARAS who works with the Chickpea Sisters, believes the key to helping more refugees become entrepreneurs is funding. She explains that it's difficult for charities to help refugees start businesses because "government cuts mean most charities must focus on the basic needs of migrants and asylum seekers, such as housing and legal aid. They don't have resources to look into employment."

"Government cuts mean most charities don't have resources to look into employment" - Alexa Sidor

Dame Stephanie Shirley came to the UK as an unaccompanied five-year-old through the Kindertransport - a programme where mostly Jewish children living in Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia were given new homes with British foster parents in the months prior to the Second World War.

Against all odds, Dame Shirley founded Xansa - a global software company that has been valued at 2.6bn. Now retired as a multi-millionaire, she says she does not feel disadvantaged by her refugee background: "I believe the Kindertransport experience made me tougher, more creative and improved my leadership capabilities by forcing me always to rise to the challenge."

She would advise refugees and former refugees, who want to start their own businesses, to anglicise their names and the names of their organisations, and improve their business English.

Dame Shirley says her work is more focused on gender and race as obstacles to success, not where someone comes from. She says: "One's life is not determined by its start."