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Entrepreneurs on Syria’s Frontlines

Despite the ongoing conflict raging in their country, a handful of intrepid Syrian entrepreneurs continue to operate their tech-based businesses.

Written by Elmira Bayrasli Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

They do so outside of Syria, in places like Amman, Beirut, Dubai, Riyadh, and Cairo. At a World Policy Institute roundtable discussion with Beirut-

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based Nina Curley, editor-in-chief of the tech news site <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”></a>, I had a chance to learn more about these unlikely innovators who have refused to give up because of war. The lessons offer a possible approach for U.S. policymakers struggling to find a solution to Syria’s turmoil. Egypt has already signed on.

Though it struggles with its own political troubles, Egypt has welcomed a number of Syrian entrepreneurs to Cairo. The Egyptian government has helped around 50,000 business people resettle in several areas of Cairo—the Tenth of Ramadan City, Sadat City, Badr City. The Egyptian government speculates that the resettlement of these Syrians will create <a href=”″ rel=”nofollow”>500,000 jobs</a> for Egyptians. It is a model for those eager to resolve the Syrian conflict as well as re-engage with a post-Arab Spring Egypt to consider. Given President Obama’s stated commitment to encourage entrepreneurship in the Middle East and establish a new dialogue with the region, this appears to be low hanging fruit, an opening to establish gains on a matter that renders too many negatives by the hour.

It is unlikely that Washington would fly hundreds of Syrian entrepreneurs to the United States and help them set up shop in America, however, the White House might consider working with its allies in the region such as Turkey and Jordan to facilitate visas and offer work space in those two countries which have expended millions in resources as a result of the Syrian crisis. The cost is minimal; it creates opportunity and, most important, good will. Most of these entrepreneurs have said they are eager to head back to Syria. The opportunities they are allowed to create and sustain outside the country will create a new foundation for Syria’s business community.

Another point brought up during my discussion with Nina, where the U.S. government can tap into its powerful and extensive platform is, for one, establishing ties between Syrian entrepreneurs and the Syrian diaspora. Connections between Syrian entrepreneurs and the diaspora, or possibly other tech communities can contribute skills, expertise and, if lucky, much needed capital. Second, creating an online platform for Syrian entrepreneurs and refugees spread throughout the region. Resembling a Facebook or LinkedIn group, this platform would facilitate connections, discussion forums and news.

The non-profit open source mapping organization Ushahidi’s <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>Crisis Mapping project</a> has assisted humanitarian and human rights workers to track refugee flows, violence, and death tolls.

American policy makers and Syria watchers should also consider reaching out to and engaging regional incubators and accelerators—groups designed to support entrepreneurs through various resources such as mentoring, networks, and capital. The State Department and its development arm, USAID, already work to support entrepreneurs through their own Global Entrepreneurship Program. They should extend and enable this program to help identify qualified entrepreneurs, that would include Syrians; provide seed capital; and provide connections to American entrepreneurs.

Incubators and accelerators, Nina pointed out in our hour-plus session, offered a welcome space and network for Syrian entrepreneurs in places such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Outfits such as <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>Oasis 500</a>, a Jordanian-based accelerator which invests at least $14,000 for a minimum 10 percent equity stake in startups it accepts into its program, have surprised a handful of Syrian techies who had no prior support, much less experience with an accelerator program. In turn, these entrepreneurs have surprised those running such programs with their preparedness. Syrian entrepreneurs, Nina said, were thinking about “the meat and potatoes” of their operations, such as revenue generation and scale.

It’s this basic support that these refugee entrepreneurs need to get them and their operations back to a post-war Syria, which they are eager to re-build by providing jobs and services to their fellow citizens.

This post originally appeared on the World Policy Institute’s blog.

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