Enabling refugees to thrive through the power of their own ideas

Before we introduce ourselves, and in the spirit of honesty, we should warn you that this is an article written on refugees by a non-profit organisation, but don’t worry - if you make it to the bottom there’s ice cream (we’re not joking!).

Now if you are familiar with refugees as a topic, we presume you are expecting two things to resurface here quickly. The first is a reminder that we are currently experiencing the largest refugee 'crisis' since World War 2. The second is that this worrying statistic will be swiftly followed by a moving case study that makes this very large number relatable and emotive.

This is not what we are here to do; we do not dispute either of these realities but regrettably both have become clichés, overused and reinterpreted based on your perspective as an example of humanitarian failure or as a grave threat to our well-established communities. What we are fighting for is different, a plea to shut out the noise of these reinterpretations and focus on what we know to be fact - namely that more people than at any other point in human history are being forced to leave their home because of war, conflict and persecution. The journeys they face in escaping are difficult and traumatic, matched only by the challenges of trying to rebuild and integrate into new communities. At every step there are barriers, to living, to finding a new home, to restarting, and, of course, there are barriers to welcoming.

A Nigerian entrepreneur hard at work with a TERN Team Manager
A Nigerian entrepreneur hard at work with a TERN Team Manager

Working out, as a global community, how to include 25 million refugees into existing societies is not easy, it is not cheap and does not always work - but it is necessary. We need to have a conversation that stops just telling stories of victims and of burdens, but instead matures into one focused on a long-term vision. That vision must go beyond the recognition that as a compassionate humanity we cannot fail refugees - and state that if we embrace the challenge of including refugees they can contribute to, and even transform, our economies, communities and society.

Our social enterprise, The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN), was founded two years ago as an attempt, in a very small way, to take on this challenge. Our vision is simple: a world where every refugee has a fair chance to build a livelihood. That this is not the case is startingly, and depressingly, obvious. Indeed, whilst the world has been focused on the humanitarian disasters happening in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, we have seen it come alive in a different and concerningly silent way.

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Slowly, but not entirely accidentally, we have been failing refugees once they have finished their journeys and started trying to rebuild their lives. This goes beyond even the pervasive, but well established, barriers to language learning, stable housing and the gaining of refugee status itself (and correspondingly the right to work in many countries). Entwining these challenges is the fact that we are increasingly placing refugees at the fringes of our economies and communities, facing unrealistic pressures on restarting without being given any of the tools needed to meet these pressures. Take the UK: refugees are 19 per cent less likely to be in employment than native born citizens, and even when they find employment their weekly earnings are likely to be 25 per cent lower. Nor are these temporary gaps that exist whilst refugees settle - even 20 years after arrival the earnings gap remains at 40 per cent. This places them as one of the most economically marginalised groups in the UK and shows that the race for economic and social independence has started well before refugees were even at the start line, their ability to flourish severely hampered. Out of this recognition TERN was created, an attempt to level the playing field.

We do this by working to enable refugees to thrive through the power of their own ideas. Through support targeted at giving refugee entrepreneurs bespoke access to the knowledge, networks and finance they need to move forward, we have seen that they are able to transform their ability to restart in the UK.

An aspiring coffee entrepreneur with his TERN mentor
'An aspiring coffee entrepreneur with his TERN mentor'

Since launching in October 2016, over 270 entrepreneurs have applied to join our community in London. Despite the fact that over 60 per cent of these applicants have a university degree or higher, less than 40 per cent are currently in employment. Up to this point, we have been able to support just over 90 of these entrepreneurs in moving forward with their business ideas, taking 35 through to launching. From Instagram tours, to central Asian food pop-ups, through to Yemeni doughnuts, we have spent the last two years  helping refugees explore their passions, aspirations and cultures as they attempt to bring new business to the UK.

And we are not stopping here, this Autumn you will be able to enjoy a Ben & Jerry’s flavour created to support refugee entrepreneurs.  A close and wonderful partner of ours, Ben & Jerry’s will be donating royalties from the Spice and All Thing N’ice flavour to set-up a new community owned fund that will distribute micro-loans to help entrepreneurs on the road to launching their businesses.

A tub of Ben & Jerry’s Spice and All Thing N’ice ice cream

Alongside this, a recent report by the Centre For Entrepreneurs has shown that  investing in refugee entrepreneurship could save the UK taxpayer £170m over a five-year period, which at a cost of just £4.8m to launch 600 businesses would constitute a 35x return on investment. So our argument to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of refugees has been strengthened by ice cream and financial common sense!

These are just the first steps on a long road. Yet, as we fight to build a new conversation centred on refugee potential, we ask that the next time you hear refugees being discussed you move the conversation away from 'crisis' to one of opportunity - if only we can reduce the barriers to restarting and give them a fair chance.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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