Entrepreneurship has restored hope, dignity and a measure of financial stability for millions of refugees and displaced people living across the globe, explains human rights advocate Andrew Leon Hanna. With profound humanity, he tells the story of three female Syrian entrepreneurs living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. He examines the challenges they face and impact they make on their communities. Along the way, he weaves in sobering facts about the growing global refugee crisis. Hanna, himself a first-generation immigrant and social entrepreneur, writes with empathy and passion in his compelling, award-winning narrative.
- More than 25 million refugees live across the globe, and the number is growing.
- One in five refugees reside in camps, most of which lack adequate infrastructure, food and water.
- The Syrian civil war displaced 13.5 million people; about half fled the country.
- Eighty thousand Syrian refugees live in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, where many residents have turned to entrepreneurship.
- Za’atari’s entrepreneurs operate thousands of businesses that move millions of dollars every month.
- Resettled refugees make significant contributions to the US economy.
- Unfortunately, few refugees ever achieve permanent resettlement.
- To improve refugees’ lives, increase investment capital, support entrepreneurs and redefine the narrative.
More than 25 million refugees live across the globe, and the number is growing.
Across the globe, more than 25 million people have been forced to leave their homes and cross international borders to avoid war, conflict and persecution. These refugees include Rohingyas in Bangladesh, Syrians in Jordan, Somalis in Kenya and millions of others fleeing crises in Yemen, Honduras, Venezuela and elsewhere.
More than three-quarters of refugees live in long-term displacement, meaning unresolved conflicts in their home countries make it unlikely they’ll return anytime soon. In addition to refugees – who have a certain amount of legal protection – over four million people are asylum seekers, people who left home for the same reasons as refugees but haven’t yet qualified for legal protections in the countries where they now reside.
“We are in the midst of an historic global refugee crisis, without an immediate path to permanent living solutions for refugee families.”
Together, refugees and asylum seekers make up the larger category of forcibly displaced persons. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 82.4 million people are now displaced. That number – the highest the UNHCR has seen in the 50 years it has kept records, and likely the highest number in human history – works out to about one in 97 people on Earth. And that number is growing: The number of displaced persons has doubled in the last decade. In 2020, over 30,000 people were displaced every day, on average.
One in five refugees reside in camps, most of which lack adequate infrastructure, food and water.
After refugees cross international borders, about 20% end up living in refugee camps. These camps – mostly run by the UNHCR, host countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – are protected areas meant to provide temporary shelter. Unfortunately, most of the camps lack basic infrastructure and can’t provide adequate food or water for refugees. Many don’t get the recommended 2,100 daily calories needed to prevent malnutrition, and fewer than half of refugee camps have enough water to meet people’s daily needs. Sanitation, electricity and basic health care present daily challenges.
“Refugees are some of the most resilient, brave and inspiring human beings on this planet.”
These resource problems are compounded by the fact that camps are growing and taking on permanent status. The Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, for example, houses over 700,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. Although refugee camps are meant to be temporary, many have become semipermanent; long-lasting conflicts make it unsafe for refugees to return home. In fact, the Dadaab camp in Kenya is 30 years old.
The Syrian civil war displaced 13.5 million people; about half fled the country.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 when a group of teenage boys spray-painted the words, “It’s your turn doctor” at a school in Dara’a, Syria. “Doctor” referred to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and, “It’s your turn” cited the boys’ desire to see democratic change in their country. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests that led the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents to step down, the teens aspired to many of the same goals as those protesters: a stronger economy; more civil liberties; and less public corruption.
“Refugees seeking a new life are a valuable source of innovation and economic growth, and – most importantly – are equal human beings who deserve full respect.”
Syrian authorities arrested, jailed and tortured the boys. In response, citizens protested, police cracked down and armed conflict ensued, culminating in a 10-day siege that left hundreds dead.
In the decade since the war began, more than 500,000 Syrians have lost their lives. The Syrian civil war continues to this day, creates a plague of human rights abuses, chemical weapons attacks, landmine maimings, child soldier recruitment and sexual violence. To escape the chaos, 13.5 million people – more than the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined – have fled their homes. About half escaped to other parts of Syria, while the rest left the country.
Eighty thousand Syrian refugees live in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, where many residents have turned to entrepreneurship.
The two-square-mile Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan was set up in 2012 to harbor refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Although the camp was meant to be temporary, it still exists a decade later as the conflict rages on. By 2021, some 80,000 refugees lived in Za’atari.
Za’atari’s location in the desert makes life hard for its residents. In its early years, refugees there faced plenty of other challenges: low morale; shortages of basic provisions; and almost nonexistent job opportunities. Children’s education was disrupted, and women’s pregnancies were dangerous. Nearly everyone suffered from high levels of anxiety and received low levels of support.
“Refugee women are not passive victims; they are strong and courageous leaders, often the first ones to respond to the needs of their community.” (Peace activist Leymah Gbowee)
Although conditions in Za’atari have improved over the years, they’re still far from perfect. Enrollment in the camp’s 30 schools has risen by 70%, but students often lag behind global standards because they need extra support to overcome trauma and make up for lost time. An increase in community health volunteers has enabled the expansion of basic services, but challenges to the provision of health care remain. Partly in response to the lack of services in the camp, many Za’atari residents have turned to entrepreneurship.
Za’atari’s entrepreneurs operate thousands of businesses that move millions of dollars every month.
In Za’atari, more than one in 10 residents works as an entrepreneur. They run phone repair shops, solar plants, sustainable farms, martial arts schools and much more. Collectively, their 3,000 businesses bring in about $13 million each month. And many of these entrepreneurs are women.
Asma started an educational program called Stories of the Sun. With support from a Jordanian NGO, she trained as a storyteller and ventured out on her own. She chose uplifting books, gained the trust of parents and decorated a small classroom to provide children much-needed education and entertainment. Along the way, she inspired a young girl to follow in her footsteps, and now both teach classes to encourage their students.
Yasmina opened a wedding studio called Salon of Lights. She sold off her sentimental jewelry to obtain start-up capital and built her business by word of mouth. She now runs a thriving operation, designing dresses, styling hair and organizing celebrations. Yasmina has helped scores of Syrian brides celebrate their wedding day in the midst of sober surroundings.
“Camps around the globe…have emerged or begun to emerge as hubs of entrepreneurship, to the surprise of those who imagine refugees in camps as passively reliant on aid.”
Malak started her own art studio, Malak Art. With the support of a refugee scholarship, she attended university in Jordan and entered her art in competitions. After winning a prestigious prize, Malak developed an online presence that has allowed her to earn money from her art, while raising awareness about the dangers of child marriage and other social issues that affect her community.
Stories of the Sun, Salon of Lights and Malak Art not only provide some measure of financial stability to their founders and families, but their entrepreneurial ventures fill them with dignity and hope, while improving their community.
Resettled refugees make significant contributions to the US economy.
Although permanently resettling refugees has costs, they are far outweighed by the economic, social and spiritual benefits. According to a 2017 draft report by the US Department of Health and Human Services, resettled refugees contributed about $63 billion to the economy in the 10-year period between 2005 and 2014. In the city of Cleveland alone, refugees boosted the overall economy by $48 million by starting businesses, hiring employees, spending money, and increasing the tax base.
Although refugee entrepreneurs face challenges including a lack of start-up capital, nonexistent business networks and discrimination, they manage to overcome and innovate at an astonishing rate. In fact, 13% of refugees resettled in the United States start businesses, while only 9% of native-born Americans do. A similar pattern occurs in Australia, where refugees are twice as likely as native-born Australians to start businesses.
“The economic contributions of refugees vastly outweigh the costs of welcoming them, and even more so when they are welcomed with strong support structures in place.”
Refugees not only bring economic benefits, they also have helped to reverse population declines in many US cities. In Utica, New York resettled Bosnian refugees turned a 6% population decline into a 3% gain. A study of 11 cities that resettled refugees confirmed Utica isn’t unique: Between 2005 and 2017, nearly all 11 cities stabilized or reversed their population declines.
Permanent refugee resettlement also creates more multicultural societies. In Utica, over 40 languages are spoken in the public schools. In the same city, Bosnian refugees renovated a vacant, downtown church and turned it into a thriving community mosque.
Unfortunately, few refugees ever achieve permanent resettlement.
As the world’s refugee population has grown, opportunities for permanent resettlement have shrunk. In 2016, less than 1% of refugees were resettled, and that number has since declined. This drop results largely from harmful rhetoric that influences attitudes in host countries.
The current refugee system, established in the mid-20th century, depends on the UNHCR identifying vulnerable refugees and making resettlement recommendations. The 30 or so countries that actively take in refugees can accept or reject those recommendations. So, negative media portrayals and political talking points often impact how many refugees are able to find permanent new homes.
“Money and capital move around the world in seconds, but it takes a refugee decades…for a place to call home.” (Somali refugee Mohamed)
Historically, the United States has taken in the most refugees: over three million since 1975. However, that number has dropped in recent years. In 2016, 92,000 refugees were resettled in America; in 2020, that number fell to 12,000. The United States took in 12,587 Syrian refugees in 2016 but only 62 in 2018.
To improve refugees’ lives, increase investment capital, support entrepreneurs and redefine the narrative.
Media coverage and political rhetoric tend to frame refugees as either victims or villains. This limiting framing leaves out the contributions refugees make and limits the support they receive. The victim narrative has some truth but paints an incomplete picture. The villain narrative, however, is wholly incorrect.
After analyzing FBI crime statistics from the 2006-2015 period, New American Economy researchers found crime rates fell in nine of 10 cities with the largest refugee populations. In the one city that didn’t see an outright decline, a long-standing opioid epidemic contributed to high crime statistics.
“The world’s refugee story is not about letting past disasters determine people’s futures; it is about uplifting and investing in underdogs harboring big dreams.”
Along with more accurate narratives, refugees need better investment opportunities in the form of access to capital and on-the-ground support. In 2017, the crowd-lending platform Kiva collaborated with the UNHCR and other financial institutions to launch the World Refugee Fund. The program distributed $14 million to 18,000 refugees, and a follow-up study showed a repayment rate of 95.5%.
Refugee entrepreneurs also need training, mentoring, funding, office space, and other forms of support to help them learn skills and establish their businesses. In the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador, the UNHCR partnered with the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador to give refugees and asylum seekers training in basic accounting, market assessment and business fundamentals. With this support, the two-year failure rate of refugees’ businesses dropped from 95% to 15%.
About the Author
Andrew Leon Hanna is a first-generation Egyptian-American lawyer, social entrepreneur and human rights advocate. He is co-founder and CEO of DreamxAmerica, a social enterprise that combines filmmaking and impact investing to highlight and support immigrant entrepreneurs across the United States.
“25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs” by Andrew Leon Hanna is a compelling exploration of the resilience, creativity, and economic contributions of refugee entrepreneurs around the world. Drawing from extensive research, interviews, and personal anecdotes, Hanna sheds light on the untold stories of individuals who have overcome immense challenges to build successful businesses and make a positive impact on their communities.
The book delves into the journeys of refugee entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, revealing their struggles, triumphs, and the unique opportunities they seize amidst adversity. Hanna emphasizes the power of entrepreneurship as a means of self-empowerment and economic stability for refugees, offering a fresh perspective on their contributions to local economies and societies.
Through vivid storytelling, the author introduces readers to a wide range of refugee entrepreneurs, showcasing a variety of industries and geographic locations. From tech startups to social enterprises, Hanna demonstrates how these individuals leverage their skills, experiences, and resourcefulness to create innovative solutions and drive economic growth. The book underscores the transformative potential of entrepreneurship in empowering refugees to rebuild their lives and contribute positively to their host countries.
“25 Million Sparks” also explores the systemic barriers and challenges faced by refugee entrepreneurs, including limited access to capital, legal constraints, and social prejudices. Hanna critically examines the role of governments, organizations, and communities in fostering an enabling environment for refugee entrepreneurship. The book provides insights into the policies, programs, and support networks needed to unlock the full potential of refugee entrepreneurs and promote inclusive economic development.
“25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs” is a captivating and eye-opening book that brings to the forefront the inspiring stories of refugee entrepreneurs. Andrew Leon Hanna’s meticulous research and compassionate storytelling offer readers a profound understanding of the immense challenges faced by refugees and the incredible resilience they demonstrate through entrepreneurship.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its ability to humanize the refugee experience. Hanna’s personal anecdotes and interviews humanize the statistics, allowing readers to connect with the individuals behind the entrepreneurial journeys. By highlighting the diverse backgrounds, cultures, and aspirations of refugee entrepreneurs, the book challenges preconceived notions and fosters empathy and understanding.
Hanna’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making complex economic concepts and entrepreneurial strategies easily understandable. The book strikes a balance between personal narratives and broader analysis, providing readers with a comprehensive view of the multifaceted nature of refugee entrepreneurship. The inclusion of real-world examples and case studies adds depth and authenticity to the narrative.
Moreover, “25 Million Sparks” sheds light on the significant economic contributions made by refugee entrepreneurs. Hanna underscores the potential of refugee-led businesses to generate employment, stimulate innovation, and foster social integration. By debunking the myths surrounding refugees and entrepreneurship, the book encourages policymakers, business leaders, and communities to recognize and harness the untapped potential of this talented and resilient population.
While the book effectively highlights the successes and achievements of refugee entrepreneurs, some readers may desire a more comprehensive exploration of the challenges and systemic barriers they face. Further elaboration on the specific strategies and support mechanisms that can facilitate refugee entrepreneurship would have added practical value to the book.
In conclusion, “25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs” is an inspiring and thought-provoking book that celebrates the resilience and economic contributions of refugee entrepreneurs. Andrew Leon Hanna’s meticulous research and compelling storytelling shine a light on the untapped potential of this often-overlooked population. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in refugee issues, entrepreneurship, and the transformative power of human ingenuity. It serves as a call to action for individuals, organizations, and governments to create inclusive environments that enable refugee entrepreneurs to thrive and create lasting impact.