Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Syrian refugees emerge as Turkey's newest entrepreneurs

The smell of fried food wafts through the air in a small room where an elderly man is hunched over a huge bowl and, despite his frail appearance, is whipping its contents with all his might. He looks up as a new guest walks into what is his new restaurant, a soft smile of recognition springing up and folding into the caverns of his hollowed cheeks as he greets a fellow refugee, but that moment of normality quickly disappears. His is the face of a different kind of Syrian refugee, one who has resolved to make the best of things in a foreign land.

Abou Abdu should be retired on all accounts. He built a home and a restaurant business he was proud of in a small town near Aleppo, one that supported his 10 children. Then the bombings began. First they were further away, he says as his expert fingers quickly fold a falafel wrap for a customer who pays him something equivalent to $1. “The sounds started to move closer; we could hear the bombs, one, two at a time. That was when I could not stay there any longer,” he explains. “We saw homes near us destroyed. We had to leave. Ours was standing, but I don't know if it is anymore.”

They did leave, abandoning homes, vehicles and a business that took 25 years to build. A mass exodus, he and his 10 children, their spouses and 18 grandchildren escaped across the border into Turkey and into the country's massive container camp, which houses more than 10,000 Syrian refugees. The camps sits on the outskirts of the small town of Kilis and lies on the Turkish-Syrian border, providing food, clothing, shelter and other services.

Abdu's hands show the signs of years of work as he goes though the motions of spooning out the hummus he had been whipping into plastic bags that will be sold.

Abdu says some five months after arriving, it dawned on him that no one was coming to help. "We had enough money for some bread, some bread only," he says. Prompted by some former customers also residing at the camp, Abdu decided to take matters into his own hands and struck up a deal with a Turkish businessman to start a scaled-down version of his old restaurant in southeastern Turkey's newest entrepreneurial hub of Kilis. For an entrepreneur, the initial expense of rent alone can be disconcerting. Abdu has worked out an arrangement where he does not pay rent for his space but rather gives half of his daily profits to his Turkish landlord. The shop does double duty; in the morning and afternoon it serves falafels and in the evening, the landlord takes over and with the assistance of Abdu they sell lamb brain for Turkish soup.

Syrians catering to Syrian needs

With the Syrian crisis moving into its third year and refugee numbers in Turkey hitting 70,000, more and more displaced Syrians are turning to entrepreneurship and moving out of the camps to start life all over again. With that comes opportunity. Muhammed Rustin, who arrived in Turkey seven months ago, decided to provide a much needed service. He and two partners launched a used furniture and electronics store just four months ago and business is brisk. The shop is small and stocked with items like refrigerators and televisions. A brand new fridge may go for TL 1,000 but at Rustin's shop, customers are able to pick one up for approximately TL 250. The most popular item: televisions.

Scud missile and dry goods

Down a narrow street full of motorcycles and baklava shops is a man who looks more suited for municipal politics then a dry goods shop. Mustafa al-Nasef sits in his starched dress shirt gazing out of the window of a shop which he opened just three weeks ago. A 900-kilogram Russianscud missile changed Nasef's fate. “It fell 500 kilometers from my home,” he explains. “So we left that same night with nothing. We sent for some things after.” Mustafa and his wife and four children, aged 12, 10, 8 and 3, now live in a small apartment with two other families. "Once we had our own homes, each of us," he says, smiling proudly although a slight quiver emerges on his face before he gives a nonchalant shrug. Business hasn't been good so far he explains. “Customers come in here asking for something but I do not speak Turkish,” he explains in his native Arabic tongue.

Starting over is never easy

Nasef's story is not unusual. Making a go at a new business is never easy and the reality is that new businesses fail. Just one week ago a Syrian entrepreneur was selling falafel wraps and ayran in a shop which he rented for TL 600. Returning to that same shop seven days later, the shutters were closed, with neighboring shopkeepers explaining that he could not afford the rent and in reality the small town of Kilis can really only support one falafel shop and Abdu was first in line.

As Abdu gets ready for his second shift -- moving from falafel extraordinaire to lamb brain salesman, he whispers that life is hard now. “I'd leave it all in a second if I could only go home,” he says as he shuffles off. Turkey has a new kind of entrepreneur in its midst, one that could help an economy that is steaming full-force ahead, but winning over hardened hearts and minds isn't going to be easy.