Sitting cross-legged in her metal trailer in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, on a chocolate-colored cushion resting atop the chocolate-colored carpet, Asma looks down at a children’s book.
She is surrounded by a semi-circle of eager children, hanging on her every word. They listen intently to Asma’s narration of her – her voice of her moving up and down like that of an actress – and lean in with wide eyes as she pivots the book around the semi-circle to share its illustrations of her. On this day, the book of choice is one about a Syrian boy named Samir who aspires to be, in his words from him, “a pilot of love, not a pilot of war.”
The children are transfixed throughout the tale, right up until Asma gently closes the book. “Al Nahaya,” she says – “The End” in Arabic. It was a moment of magic for the children in Za’atari.
Asma is a storyteller, social entrepreneur, teacher, and poet who lives in Za’atari. She was born and raised in the town of Dara’a, Syria, but in 2012 – during the early stages of the Syrian War – her house was destroyed. Asma lost everything but her family de ella, and she fled across the border. While attempting to get settled in a new country as a refugee, Asma dealt with the darkest moment of her life de ella: she suffered a miscarriage and lost her child.
Asma told me that her family’s exile from Syria and the loss of her child brought forth within her a passion to empower the children of Za’atari. Children, including her own de ella, who grew up surrounded by words like “war” and “bombings” and “shellings.” So, with the help of a non-profit, Asma designed and launched a storytelling venture. At first, she would have to literally chase after kids, imploring them to visit her trailer to listen to stories. Now, each session sees Asma’s trailer filled with eager children. They are told stories that encourage them to have self-confidence and to dream, despite the unjust lives they were born into.
“I want every girl to complete her education. Everyone should fulfill her dream of hers.”
Asma is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. And Asma’s strength, resilience, entrepreneurialism, and positivity, as inspiring as it is, is not uncommon in the Za’atari community. The camp – while still inadequate in so many ways (no human being should live in a refugee camp) – has been transformed by thousands of startups and social ventures generating more than $100 million in revenue per year and providing the community with critical services.
This did not occur by chance. Refugees are statistically much more likely to launch new ventures than native-born citizens. They have a host of entrepreneurial advantages: experience taking risks, cross-cultural mindsets come to lead to more effective businesses, and a desire to integrate into their new homes that drives greater customer empathy. But none are more valuable than the most sought after pair of entrepreneurial qualities: resilience and commitment. Having faced unimaginable pain and been forced to start lives anew often with nothing to their names, refugees learn to courageously come back from the gravest of setbacks – and they go “all in” on their ventures because, simply, they have no alternatives.
The results are powerful. Refugees drive economic growth and create greater unity in communities around the world, including in cities in need of revival. In Port Adelaide, Australia, as just one example, two universities in the region studied the impact of the town’s 2,000 Hazara Afghan refugees. They found that these individuals “have revitalized Port Adelaide in countless ways,” including through businesses in areas ranging from real estate, to construction, to food, and beyond. While there is an upfront cost to welcoming refugees, the investment easily pays dividends; the US federal government found that refugees contributed a net positive fiscal impact of $63 billion in the ten-year period ending in 2014.
These refugee-led ventures stimulate local industries and create much-needed jobs. As one example in the UK, Razan Alsous fled Syria and settled in Yorkshire in 2012, where she could not find work despite holding two degrees and speaking four languages. With a loan of just £2,500 from the government, she was able to launch Yorkshire Dama Cheese – making halloumi cheese, which is popular in Syria, using locally sourced British milk. The company has since won multiple awards, generated over £100,000 in annual revenue, and hired a local staff whose families rely on the business’s success.
Yet when we hear about refugees, we rarely seem to hear the story of Asma’s storytelling venture, or Port Adelaide’s revitalization, or Razan’s cheese company. What we hear instead – primarily from the media and many politicians – is one of two simplified stories: the story of victims, or the story of villains. We are provided images of refugees as weak and pitiful beings to be looked down on as poor and needy, without much agency. Or we are provided images of refugees to be looked down upon as pilferers, criminals coming to take our jobs and erode our culture.
These horribly misguided narratives contribute to the fact that less than 30 nations participate in the refugee resettlement program, and only an unbelievably low less than one percent of refugees are typically resettled each year. This means that nearly all refugees in the world are destined for transitory, unjust lives that no one deserves. Lives in refugee camps like Za’atari – camps that end up existing for years and even decades on end. Lives in temporary host cities – 83 percent of the time in low- and middle-income nations, not high-income nations – that often do not even offer work permits.
We are living in the midst of the largest global refugee crisis in human history. There are well over 30 million refugees around the world, up dramatically in recent months as more than 6 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country since its invasion. Now is a pivotal moment for the world to recommit itself to resettling and investing in refugees. If the moral imperative to welcome refugees is not enough for our political leaders, the promise of immense economic and social impact should soften their hearts.
Without a major global resettlement effort, we will be missing out on the beauty and hope that refugees like Asma can bring to our communities if they are invited in. More fundamentally, we will be turning our faces away from the suffering of those who have dealt with the most tragic circumstances imaginable – yet still, somehow, are able to create magic wherever they go.
Andrew Leon Hanna is co-founder and CEO of DreamxAmerica, a Knight-Hennessy Scholar and Siebel Scholar at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and author of 25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs.