FROM REFUGEES TO ENTREPRENEURS: 5 ARAB WOMEN SHARE THEIR STORIES

ESCWA  Technology Centre
ESCWA Technology Centre ESCWA Technology Centre • 3 March 2022

They have come from all across the Middle East and North Africa in search of a better life - like a human avalanche of awareness descending on the world's indifference. Some have closed off their borders, some isolated themselves so they won't come knocking, but Egypt, for the most part, received them with arms open not so wide, but wide enough and is now reaping the benefits for they come bearing the gift of entrepreneurship.  

Last month, women from Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan - and the backbone of Egypt's refugee communities, flocked to Cairo's famed Greek Campus for Women on the Move, a networking event organised by Startups Without Borders - a newly launched initiative that connects migrant and refugee entrepreneurs with mentors and opportunities to build their businesses, in partnership with Fard Foundation, Entreprenelle, The GrEEK Campus, Syrian network Khatwa, and UNHCR.

 

Women are now rising in powerful ways to solve very major problems in the Middle East

"Women are now rising in powerful ways to solve very major problems in the Middle East - this is a conglomeration of that," US entrepreneur and author of Startup Rising Christopher Schroeder stated at the first portion of the event, which connected migrant entrepreneurs with trainers, investors, and fellow businessmen and women. Thirsting for knowledge and sound business advice, Egypt's refugee entrepreneurs filled up the ground floor of the Greek Campus' library building.  

When they were done pitching their small businesses, networking, and listening attentively as global and regional expert panels lectured them on the virtues of entrepreneurship, we took a moment to appreciate their pluck through unimaginable adversity, regardless of the bottom line.    

Latifah Fathy Dorgham

A social worker-turned-local Messiah in her native Damascus, Dorgham was born to Palestinian parents who took refuge in Damascus, Syria, where she had lived until 2013. That’s when Dorgham found herself in Egypt, after the onset of the turmoil in Syria. “I came to Egypt for work and then got stuck here. I felt that society here needs me,” she says. “I started working on helping Syrian and Egyptian youths find employment opportunities – I’m a Human Resources Trainer and I also do counselling.”

Today, Dorgham is a full-fledged social entrepreneur, after a long career in civil service and social work with bodies like UNRWA, UNICEF, and the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Along with heading the Syrian Women’s League Maadi and Helwan chapter, Dorgham is also the founder of Mogtamaa Waay Wa’akthar Hemaya, an initiative she launched to increase awareness on social issues, chief among which are issues like violence against women and female illiteracy. One of the initiative’s most talked about programmes is the self-defence training classes she offers women, both Syrian and Egyptian. “Women bear the brunt of societal problems, yet they have very few rights, so I’m trying to make them more aware of their rights. They shouldn’t get used to being at the receiving end of violence,” she says. “If you look at society now, you’ll see thievery, kidnapping, etc. so we want to strengthen women and teach them how to defend themselves if they’re ever alone.”

 

Women bear the brunt of societal problems, yet they have very few rights, so I’m trying to make them more aware of their rights. They shouldn’t get used to being at the receiving end of violence

But her social enterprise’s mandate goes well beyond that. Dorgham’s initiative also offers literacy and foreign language classes to women in refugee communities and rural areas in Egypt. “I’m working with people in the outskirts of the city and rural areas – women there are not as well educated or aware as their urban counterparts,” she says. “I want to make them strong, more culturally aware, knowledgeable, and physically fit. … I also want them to be aware of the laws of the country in which they live.”

Nahla El Imam

Nahla El Imam came to Egypt as a tourist in late 2011, only to find herself locked out of her home country of Syria due to the on-going war there, and has lived here ever since and has just recently been reunited with her husband who had been living in Saudi Arabia. “The children and I couldn’t join him there due to visa issues,” she says. “When he left, the kids were in elementary school, today, they’re in high school.”

With degrees in accounting, interior design, and fashion from France’s École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode (ESMOD), Imam’s chosen path may come as a surprise. After being appointed social development leader by UNHCR, Imam had a rude awakening when she ventured into the underbelly of Egypt’s refugee community. “I would go into each home in Faisal, Haram, Boulaq, and Ard El Liwa, and find Syrians below the poverty line – many women without someone to support them, so I tried to think of something that would bring them all together or a common denominator,” she recounts.

That common denominator turned out to be Syrian food. Together with a team of Syrian women – initially, Imam opened a catering business. “The premise is to cook healthy food, stay true to the authentic flavours of Syria, and maintain our culinary heritage – because the restaurants here serve Syrian food that tastes completely different from the food in Syria,” she explains.

 

Imam’s catering business, El Set El Shalabeyya, provides women with the ingredients and – unlike other online catering and food delivery apps – a fully-equipped location to cook in.

Like any refugee in Egypt, Imam and her army of women too face differential legal treatment that drives them into the country’s expansive informal economy. “For an Egyptian to obtain a business license, it costs 1,500 EGP, for me, it costs 15,000 EGP – I can’t afford that,” she says. “Being unable to legalise my business makes it hard for me to secure a steady revenue stream because regular clients who all demand a tax bill – I failed to close a 100 meals a day deal with an organisation once because I couldn’t produce a tax bill.”

But that doesn’t seem to be stopping her. Imam’s catering business, El Set El Shalabeyya, provides women with the ingredients and – unlike other online catering and food delivery apps – a fully-equipped location to cook in. Today, El Set El Shalabeyya has more than 50 women on its payroll, both Syrian and Egyptian.

Mona Ishaq

Mona Ishaq and her family fled to Egypt from war-torn Sudan in 2015. “We were driven out by the war and the government’s harassment of my husband, so we sought help and came to Egypt,” she says. “We came here to seek asylum, we went to the UNHCR, and applied and our application was accepted.”

Ishaq soon joined the workforce after an eye disease left her husband visually impaired and unable to support the family. “I started working as a teacher, but on weekends, I had nothing to do with that free time, so I started a small business selling Sudanese perfumes,” she says.

Her home-based business garnered a small clientele, mainly among Egypt’s Nubian and Sudanese communities who both share similar customs and traditions, like dukhan and dilka (the Sudanese equivalent of a Moroccan bath) and mixing khumra perfume (made of sandalwood, musk, and incense). “In Sudan, when a woman gets married, she doesn’t wear readymade perfumes, we mix them,” she explains. “That stuff can’t be found here, so they come to me. I’m the first one in the Sudanese community here to do that.”

 

It’s not easy. Someone who is coming from a war-torn country is a psychological wreck. Add to that the fact that you are new here – you get cheated, you get swindled, and you’re traumatised and homesick.

Ishaq markets her products within both communities, and relies on her network at her job to as an additional distribution and marketing channel by approaching her student’s parents. However, she struggles to grow her business past its tiny market and make a bigger profit rather than barely subsisting. “My products are marketed within a small clientele, so I make very little profit. It’s very hard for me to compete with Chinese and Syrians in Egypt,” she says. “Syrians make food, that’s essential. I can’t compete with them when it comes to food, even if I make Sudanese food, no one would buy it. It will still be marketed in a small segment.”

She hopes to expand her business by opening a salon and cater for a larger clientele. On top of the legal and commercial obstacles associated with starting a business in Egypt, being a refugee comes with its own set of hurdles. “It’s not easy. Someone who is coming from a war-torn country is a psychological wreck,” she reflects. “Add to that the fact that you are new here – you get cheated, you get swindled, and you’re traumatised and homesick. We’re over that now, and it wasn’t easy, but it passed.”  

Helianor Rafat

Jordanian-Egyptian entrepreneur Helianor Rafat’s story may not fit the tear-jerking spectacle the media has turned the refugee crisis into, but it is one of displacement nonetheless. Having lived her whole life in Jordan, Rafat relocated with her Egyptian husband to Saudi Arabia for his job, but ended up in the library building of Downtown Cairo’s Greek Campus due to growing anti-immigrant sentiments in the kingdom. “About 3,000,000 foreigners have left Saudi Arabia. … I relocated to Egypt after the Saudization happening right now, which saw the government impose more taxes on the country’s migrant workforce and we have children to raise,” Rafat says.

 

Rafat came to Egypt with her children in tow and carrying big dreams to start her own business and drawing on her own expertise as a mother and homemaker to launch her line of organic, homemade packaged food.

Rafat came to Egypt with her children in tow and carrying big dreams to start her own business and drawing on her own expertise as a mother and homemaker to launch her line of organic, homemade packaged food. “When I was in Saudi, I socialized with a lot of foreigners, it was a community that was keen on healthy living, so we would meet up and talk about organic trends and such, and exchange recipes,” she recounts.  “In Saudi, I used to make my family homemade peanut butter, Nutella, pesto sauce, and even cold cuts – all free of preservatives, hydrogenated oils, and sugar. … I wanted to steer my kids clear of that stuff because it causes serious diseases.” 

Rafat won the event's pitch, locking down Women on the Move's highest honour: 15,000 EGP worth of incubation provided by TIEC's female-focused incubator, Heyya Ra'eda, as well as a marketing and communications training, provided by USAID's Seed programme. 

Wafa’ Yassin Khalaf

The story of this Iraqi-Yemeni refugee belongs on the other side of the spectrum: it’s a hopeful one. Wafa’ Yassin Khalaf left Sanaa, Yemen – where she lived with her Yemeni husband and owned a big beauty salon – after the war erupted, and moved to Iraq to be with her family. Soon after moving she moved to Iraq, her husband relocated to Egypt, where she then joined him.

 

So I opened up shop, I can’t say it’s doing great or anything, but it’s a start and it’s still small. I dream of, one day, turning it into a big beauty centre.

Khalaf has only been in Egypt for about 8 months, yet she is already making entrepreneurial strides. And it all started with a serendipitous reunion. “At first, we lived in Dokki, and there, I met some young women who used to be my customers in my old salon in Sanaa,” she says. “One girl, her name is Ghaida’ told me about this initiative to train young women to become hairdressers and beauticians and asked me to teach them.”

Khalaf ended up, not only teaching the AUC-accredited course, but also designing the curriculum for it, which opened a lot of doors for her. “The girls got to know me better and encouraged me to open my own salon,” she says. “So I opened up shop, I can’t say it’s doing great or anything, but it’s a start and it’s still small. I dream of, one day, turning it into a big beauty centre.”

Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.

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