Seven Lessons From Refugees Who Became Entrepreneurs

Inspiring accounts of four persons who had to start again in their professional lives.

In 2018, over 25 individuals were forced to escape their homes every minute, as reported by the United Nations Refugee Agency. Worldwide, 71 million individuals have been uprooted from their homes because of persecution, war, violence, or abuses of human rights. Many individuals have abandoned employment, academic pursuits, and lifelong goals just to arrive in unfamiliar places where they must begin rebuilding not only their lives but also their professional ones. Motivating accounts of refugees who found new lives as business owners in the Netherlands.

Seven Lessons From Refugees Who Became Entrepreneurs
Inspiring accounts of four persons who had to start again in their professional lives

Tey: From a warzone to cryptocurrencies

Tey went to Lebanon with his Syrian father following the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. Tey spent his formative years in a conflict zone, where there were no toys other than pebbles and where the roar of aircraft and missiles was a constant companion.

After enrolling at a renowned Lebanese institution, Tey became a consultant for the city of Beirut. Tey was deeply affected by the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and he eventually relocated to Dubai as a result.

However, in Dubai, his Syrian passport and years of work experience were useless. As a result of his circumstances, he was down to folding jeans at a boutique and often wept himself to sleep. He dusted himself up and honed his abilities, eventually mastering many languages to facilitate his interactions with clients from all over the globe.

After that, he started working as a trainer for Du, a Dubai-based telecoms company. Not long after, a Dutch CEO asked Tey to come teach his staff there. In the midst of the growing Syrian catastrophe, Tey managed to secure a job offer and a work visa, and he eventually found himself in The Hague, full of optimism about the future.

Tey put in long hours in his host nation. He liked the egalitarianism and transparency of the Dutch society. However, his employer did not extend his contract when it had expired for four years. Tey consulted attorneys for insight into the asylum procedure, who assured him it would be “a straightforward process.”

Tey submitted a refugee application in September of 2014. Due to an oversight, he was forced to spend the night on the cold concrete floor of a detention center with nothing but the clothing on his back, his cell phone, and its charger. After three months, he was moved to a refugee camp with about 40 other people, where he shared bunk beds with them.

Seven Lessons From Refugees Who Became Entrepreneurs
Tey: From a warzone to cryptocurrencies

However, the restrooms were consistently unsanitary, and there was a high volume of people. Tey was unfazed, so he ordered Syrian cuisine and set up a supper for 20 using his Bitcoin account. As a result, he was soon hailed as “camp king.” Tey became a provider to anybody with the means to pay after gaining access to the commodities that were in high demand. “I felt like a general!” he exclaims.

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Later, while taking online classes on bitcoin, Tey landed a well-paying contract as a consultant and helped other camp members find work as gardeners, chefs, and so on. A master’s degree scholarship was awarded to him as well. In the eyes of his fellow campers, he had just become their version of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

He was granted refuge and a residence visa within six months. He set up a digital identity management firm, Tykn, as soon as he acquired a steady internet connection. The future in which “identities are portable, private, and safe so that no one ever has to lose access to their identity again” is the goal he aspires to achieve. At now, he is the proud owner of a house in The Hague.

Mutaz: A Sudanese engineer turned entrepreneur

Even as a young boy, Mutaz fantasized of creating groundbreaking technological advancements. His life thus far has consisted mostly of self-reinvention. While his accountant father, a Sudanese no longer welcome in his own country, sent Mutaz and his mother to live in Saudi Arabia, Mutaz never stopped believing in the possibility of his ambitions. The initial roadblock he faced was that Saudi colleges did not accept international students. To that end, he enrolled at a school in Sudan dedicated to the study of architectural engineering.

Seven Lessons From Refugees Who Became Entrepreneurs
Mutaz: A Sudanese engineer turned entrepreneur

Mutaz moved back to Saudi Arabia in 2009, after finishing college. To the north of Riyadh, some 700 kilometers, he worked as an architect for the first time. He worked his way up the corporate ladder for nearly a decade, switching from one company to another at just the right times, until he was managing major projects for both domestic and international corporations.

He missed his “window” to return to Saudi Arabia since he became involved in protests in Khartoum while the revolution was brewing in Sudan in 2018. After entering Ethiopia, he proceeded to the Saudi Embassy there, where he was informed that he would require the help of his Saudi sponsor. Sadly, the target of his calls was not picking up.

A parasite had made him ill, so he accepted his sister’s invitation to visit her in Europe, where she had resided for many years. After a few weeks of realizing he couldn’t go back to Riyadh, Mutaz applied for political asylum. He submitted his paperwork and application to the Netherlands in July of 2018.

Mutaz has enrolled in a business school to pass the time as he waits for an answer. Moreover, he has enrolled in a course at Forward Incubator, a startup that helps first-time company owners get their ventures off the ground and running by providing them with the resources they need to secure funding and promote growth. A niche sector in the nation, digital nomads are the focus of his research as he develops a design for lodgings that cater to them. One of his ultimate goals is to launch a company that provides second chances to people like himself and the others who have invested in it. He thinks that by creating an ecologically friendly business, he can help fund new businesses in Africa.

Rahaf and Tamim: The long road to Amsterdam

When the civil crisis in Syria broke out, Rahaf was a year into her undergraduate studies in business. She was diligent and unafraid, so she continued her schoolwork despite the surrounding shelling and the frequent power outages. She watched as her classmates were jailed while huddled under blankets in the cold lecture halls.

Her first employment after college was in the supplies department of a Danish nonprofit organization. She started off as a volunteer but quickly demonstrated her abilities and was paid. After establishing herself in Syria for a while, Rahaf eventually wanted to expand her professional horizons outside the country’s borders. After researching her options, she decided to move to Turkey, where she could work with an international Charity in relative peace and safety.

A young man by the name of Tamim read her resume and was completely taken aback by her record of success and resolve. He promptly scheduled a video chat meeting. He promised to have his parents meet with hers within a few days to ask for their blessing to marry her.

After that, they asked more practical questions, such as when and where they might meet in person. They choose to improve their position in society through academic pursuits. Rahaf was one of two who were awarded Erasmus scholarships and went on to study in Spain.

They communicated as much as their intermittent power and internet service would allow. Nevertheless, they were able to be married legally, at least on paper, despite the fact that in Syria, marriage contracts are signed by the groom and the bride’s father. Tamim wanted to join Rahaf in Spain, but he was denied a visa because he lacked the proper paperwork in Turkey. She decided to pursue her Master’s degree independently and did so.

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The couple wanted to start a new life together, so they applied for asylum in the Netherlands. This past fall of 2018, Rahaf went to Amsterdam to formally apply. When Tamim finally decided to be trafficked to Europe, he used his whole life savings to make the journey. After meeting online for almost three years, the pair finally hugged for the first time in March 2019.

Rahaf and Tamim have spent the better part of the past few months at the refugee camp working toward their shared professional goal. Others, like Mutaz, enrolled in a curriculum at Forward Incubator to receive business coaching and guidance during financing presentations. The duo is looking to commercialize a novel coffee alternative derived from date seeds. They have faith since they have overcome many obstacles and always found a way to succeed.

There are seven things we may learn from immigrants who have started over professionally.

  1. Adversity is the mother of invention.
  2. When stuck, be smart and look for alternatives to keep moving forward.
  3. Education and self-study are key; be curious and seek learning in all possible ways.
  4. Develop skills that are transferable and master English.
  5. Use whatever ideas and passions you have to build your future as best you can.
  6. Optimism and self-belief are critical to success.
  7. Do not assume you need perfect conditions to start a great company.

Claire Harbour is a global talent expert, offering services as a coach, adviser, speaker and writer on topics related to people, talent and culture.

Antoine Tirard is a talent management advisor and the founder of NexTalent. He is the former head of talent management of Novartis and LVMH.

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