From Syria to Seed Tours: Experiences of Founding Refugees


Think you’re struggling to fundraise? Try doing it when English is your fourth language, you’ve just arrived in Europe, you don’t know anyone, and Trump’s travel ban means you can’t set foot in the United States. That’s the reality for many refugee entrepreneurs trying to build startups facing even greater odds than their local rivals.

Asylum applications in Europe have been on the rise since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, and the war in Ukraine has created a new displacement crisis. Given the opportunity, migrants and refugees tend to be keen business builders – in the UK alone there is more than 450,000 people from 155 countries who have founded businesses since arriving in the country, according to the Center for Entrepreneurs.

So, what is life like for refugees who want to join the European entrepreneurial community?

Exclusion ecosystems

“You have to find a co-founder who is a white man,” says Yama Saraj, founder of Parisian sports equipment startup SensAI. Saraj has lived in France since 2019 and in Europe since 1988, when he was 11 and his family fled Afghanistan and settled in the Netherlands.

“If I had the opportunity to live my life again, I would definitely try to find a good Dutch or French co-founder who could be the face of the company. There are so many institutional and cognitive biases that people have that are so tiring to fight against.

SensAI recently raised €20,000 in angel investment, won €42,000 from La French Tech “Springboard” program and is now incubated by École Polytechnique, but Saraj says he still faces funding discrimination.

“I realized how hard it is for a startup to get funding, but specifically how disproportionately hard it is for immigrants, people of color, to access resources,” he says. . “I try to get help and people are really like, ‘Wow, is this really your idea?’ Or like, ‘Wow, you speak Dutch so well.’ After hearing 20 or 30 times you realize that’s not really a compliment, these guys have very low expectations.

Yama Saraj turned his passion for martial arts into a business

With SensAI, Saraj is trying to build a business that will improve the health and well-being of its users, but her professional motivations go beyond the simple desire to make a great product.

“I tried to do something with life to bring a level of dignity and honor to my family. And also to refute many people, [to show] that we immigrants, we are not useless people, we can be very productive citizens and participate and contribute to our society,” he says.

Lack of access to finance

Nour Mouakke, founder of meeting and event booking platform Wizme, agrees that access to funding is a big issue for refugee founders: “There is no support from that angle.”

He moved from Syria to London in 2009 to complete a Masters in Marketing at Durham Business School, before landing a job in business development with InterContinental Hotels Group in the UK. But after the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, he applied for refugee status in 2014 as a safety net because he was sponsored by his employer. “Besides, I wanted to start my business so badly. Unfortunately, when you are sponsored, you are tied to the company where you work so you can’t really start a business.

Nour Mouakke, founder of Wizme
Nour Mouakke, founder of Wizme

And even with more than a decade of experience in events and hospitality under his belt, Mouakke stresses that professional networking is a big challenge when you arrive in a new country.

“The other big problem is the network. I moved from a country where I had a network and knew people to help me get things done. All of a sudden you’re thrown into a new world where you have to find your way and find the right people to connect with,” he says.

“Tightly woven networks are good for trust and people can innovate faster. But sometimes it can also seem, for people from minority groups who have just arrived, a little more difficult to enter. These are implicit mechanisms of exclusion,” adds Saraj, who tries to help other refugees find work in Europe.

“Two million people have fled Afghanistan. These are people who are students, teachers, doctors, engineers. These people had to flee their country. Shame and humiliation – it’s such a dehumanizing process. I try to get them out of this asylum system as soon as possible so they can interact with society.

Other initiatives to support refugee entrepreneurs are beginning to emerge. The Human Safety Net recently launched a refugee-focused incubator in Paris, while Vifre offers online resources for budding entrepreneurs who settle in new countries. There is also Immigrant incubators in the Netherlands and SINGA Business Lab in Berlin.

A different level of pressure

It’s not just institutional biases that these founders face. Rami Kalai is co-founder of London-based inbox management platform Compose. Originally from Syria, he describes how his nationality created complications other entrepreneurs would never come close to experiencing.

“Things got complicated when we raised our round because we really wanted to raise American venture capital funds and being Syrian means you can’t enter the country because we’re on the travel ban. “, he says.

Rami Kalai, co-founder of Compose
Rami Kalai, co-founder of Compose

Kalai was then able to find willing investors in the UK and is clearly grateful to be in a place where he can build a business safely.

“There are no MiGs [fighter jets] flying overhead. I had MiGs flying overhead, saw them firing rockets into the road. That doesn’t happen here. So I think it’s important to be grateful and to be able to really use what you have,” he says.

But while he’s grateful to be safe, Kalai also describes how the normal pressures of starting a business can be compounded for refugees.

He recalls the conversation he had with his father, after his family had spent their savings to send him to Imperial College London to study electrical engineering: “My parents sold our house in Damascus to a fraction of the price at which they had bought it, with the intention of sending me to Europe to study. My father had one of those conversations with me that you don’t forget. He said to me, “It’s the money we have. We will invest it in your future because everything we have built for decades is lost to war. So hopefully you can build something somewhere else.

But the tone of those conversations changed after Kalai turned down a job at JPMorgan to build his startup.

“I got a return offer from JPMorgan — that was before we had funding for the startup — and I didn’t want to take it,” he recalls. “My dad was freaking out, because all he wanted was something stable. He said to me, ‘It’s a stable job. We don’t have any money. You should take this. And we had a huge argument for a couple of days. When we brought up the pre-selection round, he said, ‘Well, yeah, actually, maybe you can do it.’


Nour Mouakke of Wizme describes a similar experience of family pressure as he grows his business.

“I gave up the things that any startup founder would do. Work, salary, put all my savings, sweat, equity, skin in the game. I did that but the difference here is I put my skin in the game, but I have family and friends in Syria, who need my support and I gave up my salary to be able to support them. I have four younger siblings. It makes things a lot more difficult,” he says.

But Kalai adds that while investors and entrepreneurs need to be aware of the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee founders, they also need to be aware of their potential.

“When I meet a founder who is a refugee, asylum seeker or immigrant, I think he has this chip on his shoulder, because I lived it. And I imagine they have a similar motivation, which means they’ll probably work better than their competition,” he says. “There’s an element there that’s going to motivate them a bit more, and it’s going to push them to push themselves a bit more. I think if we can actually build a built environment to facilitate that, then great things could happen. produce.

But more than anything else, these founders hope that, rather than their personal stories or the journeys they’ve been forced to take, it’s the products they build that will do the talking.

Refugee Startup Stories

SensAI — founded in 2019

The pitch: SensAI develops camera and motion sensor systems to convert recycled car tires into smart punching bags. The technology is combined with digital training programs designed to improve the physical and mental health of users. Founder Yama Saraj hopes that using recycled materials will make martial arts-based technology accessible to people in developing economies, with the goal of creating “the peloton of boxing”.

Wizme — founded in 2015

The pitch: Are you booking a complex event with large groups, multiple meeting rooms, technical needs and catering options? Wizme is a smart booking platform that makes it easy for groups and event planners to book everything they need for an event, while giving venues the tools they need to streamline their event planning. Founder Nour Mouakke has spent over a decade working in the events and hospitality industry, where he witnessed great inefficiencies in event management.

Compose — founded in 2019

The pitch: Compose is an inbox management tool that brings your business apps together for easy collaboration and conversation. The product creates a single inbox from tools like email, Slack, Notion, and Google Docs in a productivity app that promises to help you view, organize, act on, and find your most important conversations in the world. your entire workflow.

Tim Smith is Sifted Iberia’s correspondent. He tweets from @timmpsmith


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