It was nearly five years ago when Razan Alsous fled Syria with her husband and three children and arrived in Huddersfield with all their belongings squeezed into one suitcase. Ambitious and determined to carve out a new, and better, life, Alsous sought to find a job. But despite her scientific background and pharmacy degree, it was a massive battle; companies demanded references and a history of working in the UK that she simply didn’t have.
At the same time, Alsous was starting to make her own halloumi from scratch using local milk. “We used to eat halloumi on a daily basis but here it wasn’t as good as it used to be back home,” she says. Searching both in English and Arabic online, her microbiology background enabled Alsous to grasp the basics of making the cheese. Enthused by the outcome, she realised that there was a gap in the market for a new style of tasty halloumi.
Securing a startup loan of £2,500 from the Local Enterprise Agency, Alsous set up Yorkshire Dama Cheese in 2014, showcasing the brand at trade shows and food festivals. “In Syria, I used to be active, I never sat down,” says Alsous. “When I arrived here, instead of focusing on what we had lost, I needed to think about the future.”
Now a five-strong team, Yorkshire Dama Cheese is sold in farm shops and delis nationwide. And there’s no sitting still for Alsous – she’s currently in talks with a supermarket to stock her brand and is working on a move to a new factory. “We’ll have a window where people can watch it being made and buy it.”
Alsous and her family are among more than 117,000 refugees thought to be living in the UK, many of whom have fled countries due to war or human rights abuses (a refugee, by definition, has proven that they would be at risk if returned to their home country). Like Alsous, many are working hard to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in. But they face serious challenges.
“Around the world, refugees face significant restrictions on their economic lives,” says Alexander Betts, professor of forced migration and international affairs, and director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.
“Most of the world’s refugees are not allowed to work. For those that are, there are other challenges: language, non-recognition of foreign qualifications, discrimination all pose barriers to finding a job. Refugees also face additional challenges in registering businesses and accessing banking facilities. But in spite of this, many refugees do set up small businesses, sometimes in the informal sector [self-employment].”
Edin Basic, co-founder of gourmet pizza company Firezza, was studying civil engineering in Bosnia when civil war broke out and he was forced to leave in 1992. He arrived in London not speaking a word of English. “That was the hardest challenge at first, along with the lack of money, as I had no help from my parents or other relatives,” he says. He worked in restaurant kitchens, learning how to cook pasta and pizza, and worked his way up as an area manager for Caffè Uno and later, Starbucks. “Every step of the way was a challenge, but I am kind of grateful of that. The struggle made me who I am. Being busy meant I didn’t have time to think too much about what had happened.”
It was his time spent working in restaurants that sparked the idea for good quality pizzas. Faced with a lack of savings, along with business partner, fellow Bosnian refugee Adnan Medjedovic, Basic called in favours from contacts. “We were lucky to have friends including an architect, builder and graphic designer who helped us to develop the site and create a brand for Firezza. We also had an investor who saw the potential of what we were doing.” After opening its Wandsworth site in the early 2000s, Firezza received a £250,000 investment from private equity business YFM.
Success ensued and the duo sold the company, which now has 24 locations, to Pizza Express last year for an undisclosed sum.
Betts describes refugees as natural entrepreneurs. “For any migrant, it takes a certain amount of enterprise to be able to leave your home and travel to a new country. But for refugees there is the additional need to adapt: when people are forced to flee they have to adapt – to new social networks, new markets, and new regulation. As the old adage suggests, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.”
Robert Rajeswaran, chief executive of coding bootcamp GoCode, was forced to leave Jaffna, Sri Lanka with his family when he was a child.It took around two years of his family living as refugees before they were granted asylum in the UK.
He says the whole experience of being a refugee gave him the hunger to make his business work. “There was standoffish behaviour towards refugees and immigrants in parts of society […] This gave me a drive to succeed and prove that a refugee too can make it in this country through sheer hard work and perseverance.”
To help refugees in self-employment and setting up their own company in the UK, Charlie Fraser co-founded The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN). “Many refugees have been successful entrepreneurs,” says Fraser. “But when they arrive, refugees are often put in areas where there is a labour surplus, and it can take a long time accessing finance because they have no credit history.”
Refugees are forced to take jobs at much lower skill levels than they previously held, he says. To help empower refugees, TERN runs regular programmes offering access to business mentoring and expert advice.
The programmes run for 12 weeks with the targets set by the refugees taking part in them. The common aim is to identify key challenges facing their businesses, or business idea, such as market research, business planning, customer engagement, and work towards overcoming these such that they become financially viable by the end of the programme (upon which they can access finance through TERN’s lending network).
During the programme, participants meet with their mentors for one to two hours once a week. While there is no obligation for mentors to keep up with mentees following the programme, Fraser says frequently mentors check-in with mentees afterwards.
“We want to make sure they are no longer marginalised,” Fraser says. An example of a former participant on a three-month TERN programme is a former engineer from Syria who is setting up a software company that creates tools for verifying images on media sites. “He was matched with a mentor from a tech venture capital firm who advised him on marketing material for his new business,” says Fraser.
Despite the growing awareness of refugee entrepreneurship, with initiatives like Techfugees organising hackathons and connecting refugees to entrepreneurs and networks like TERN, Betts says the government needs to do more to create an auspicious environment for budding business owners. “Startup capital, funding for business education, regulating against discrimination by banks, and supporting business incubators, for instance, could all help refugees to better help themselves.”
But for many refugees, there’s an ingrained fear that motivates them to succeed. “You have to work hard to survive when you find yourself in another country with no one to depend on but yourself,” says Basic. “Failure is not an option.”
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