June 1, 2018

“My ambition is limitless”: Three Syrian entrepreneurs against the odds

Zoubaida, Nour and Ayham are all refugees from Syria. They share the drive to become successful entrepreneurs in their new country of residence: Turkey.

Zoubaida founded a translation business in Gaziantep, Nour has recently set up a software company in Istanbul, and Ayham – after surviving two conflicts in Syria, and then Libya – has now rebuilt his steel construction company in Mersin.

In April, they were invited by EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, to participate in an event organised by the EU Madad Trust Fund in Brussels. Commissioner Hahn recently stated: “In the future, I plan to work in both countries, Turkey and Syria.” He held the event prior to the EU UN Brussels 2 Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, in order to hear the voices of Syrian students and entrepreneurs.  SPARK traveled with Zoubaida, Nour and Ayham to Brussels.


Zoubaida Alrawi

On stage with Commissioner Hahn, Zoubaida told him that her idea to start a translation company was sparked by the urgent need for high quality translation services by Syrian and international organisations around Gaziantep. Having majored in English literature, she felt an opportunity had come in Turkey. She started with Arabic to English translations, but soon added Turkish services too. Her company, aptly named Ambition, offers competitive prices for services such as instant interpretation during events and professional translation for legal and scientific purposes.

“My company aspires to be a bridge between countries,

to transfer knowledge and culture by translating books, articles, official documents, policies, educational videos and so on.”

“However, certain regulations in Turkey,” Zoubaida reflected, “make it very difficult for us to start a business and grow. Only 20% of my staff can be Syrian or foreign. If I employ 2 Syrians, I am obligated to employ 8 Turkish citizens.” She went on to mention the high taxes and the lack of financial resources as the main obstacles for Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey. “For me it would be great to learn for other companies: how did they do it, what are their lessons learned?” She said that Syrian entrepreneurs could use some extra training, networking and marketing support.

Ayham Maksoud

Ayham agreed wholeheartedly. After moving from Libya to Turkey in 2014 as the revolution began, he could hardly find the finances to re-start his steel business, despite having savings from two successful operating years in Libya. He told Commissioner Hahn that the competition in Turkey is fierce for a foreign company like his. And that learning the Turkish language – a must – was very hard. 

Ayham started his business, Almaksoud, in Aleppo 8 years ago. Once the war in Syria made it impossible to continue, he moved his company to Libya. In 2 years, 120 staff had successfully completed over 70 steel structure projects. However, when conflict erupted in Libya, Ayham decided, again, to start over. Each time he moved, he needed to re-register his company, find new employees, establish a new network and begin to make a profit once more. He has now been granted Turkish citizenship, which makes life and business easier. “Eventually, I want my company to become part of the rebuilding of my country.”

Nour Kotwami

Nour, who was listening  to the panel session on the first row, nodded in agreement with Ahyam. His software company has faced similar ordeals. During breakfast, he explained that as a Syrian refugee entrepreneur, you have to be willing to take on extra challenges, be patient and very resilient. “What is problematic for us is that banks have little or no facilities for us, most of the time they don’t even want to work with us. For Syrians, for example, it is very hard to transfer money in Turkey. At all levels, access to finance is a problem: not many investors want to work with Syrians. Another issue,” he concluded, “is getting your work permit. That takes very long and could be much better facilitated.”

Nour’s company, Systenza, offers software solutions for data collection, analysis and visualisation. While working for national and international humanitarian NGOs in the last few years, he discovered that the tools for collecting refugee data are non-existent or limited at best. He started his business 7 months ago, “but what Syrian companies need most is an incubator that focuses on their specific needs and challenges.”

Many young people lack the practical knowledge and skills to start their own business. Most don’t know how to do a proper market analysis, or how to write a strong business plan. “More practical skills are necessary for young entrepreneurs to have a successful start. These should become part of curriculum of higher education,” Nour emphasised. “And, equally important, the educational system should be developed in accordance with the latest technologies.

I want to be there to support my fellow Syrians

Ayham Maksoud, Entrepreneur 

Bridging the gap

All three entrepreneurs look beyond their own situation and see the importance of bridging the gap between higher education and the labour market. Nour would like to partner with Turkish universities so that Syrian students can do an internship at Syrian. “Psychologically speaking, that will be very beneficial for them: to be part of a successful Syrian business.”

Ayham is equally ambitious about his future: “I’m planning to have a big and successful company with a team of experts, selling my products all over the world. I want to be there to support my fellow Syrians, to have a decent life by providing them training and jobs to increase their efficiency. And when time comes, I will be ready to rebuild my beloved Syria. My ambition is limitless.”

SPARK is supporting Syrian entrepreneurs in the region, such as Zoubaida, Ayham and Nour with the support of the Nationale Postcode Loterij.