Published: 23 December 2017
Guests: Jay Asad
The central thrust of right wing media is that refugees leave their home countries for an economic advantage in another. Sadly, some people fall for these simplistic headlines which play hard into reinforcing far-right or xenophobic tendencies.
But this media treatment glosses over subtle, complicated, often intricate stories that are unique to each displaced human being.
Meet Jay Asad, Syrian refugee and the founder of The Refugee Company and Startup Kitchen. He joins us on the show to discuss why he fled for a new life and business in the Netherlands and how to build better refugee programs and economic systems that prevent the further fracturing of Europe.
Seldom do the media celebrate the life-changing voyage many refugees make, but there are many inspiring stories out there and a wealth of refugees who want to economically contribute to the countries that welcome them.
Jay Asad left Syria and his life there against his will. Like many refugees, Jay is an entrepreneur and as soon as he arrived in Europe he started a company and began employing people. The Refugee Company is now thriving in Amsterdam.
We first met Asad in a former prison kitchen outside Amsterdam, which is where he started his second business, Startup Kitchen.
He told Renegade Inc. the decision to leave Syria was not easy.
“I tell you, it’s something that you cannot imagine,” he said. “All of a sudden you are uprooted from a life that has everything – a job, friends, family – and start something completely new.”
Asad says the minute Southern ISIS forces “showed up out of nowhere”, he knew it was time to go.
“I remember it was mentioned a little bit in the news but nothing like it was something to worry about, because there are so many factions in Syria,” he said. “But the day I heard they took over Mosul with a stash of weaponry, for me, right there, that was the creation of a complete army. It was a red light. For me that was it.”
He then had to sit-down with his family to discuss his decision.
“We heard the news about how dangerous the trip was, and to take them with me was completely out of the question,” he said.
“They were shocked, but I think they were ready for the idea,” he said, so long as he agreed not to resort to a rubber dinghy to get to Europe. The original plan was they would join him in three-months time, though it would end up taking a year.
“I didn’t just come out and say it. But we were facing the problem that having them leave with me was a dangerous thing, and staying was also dangerous.”
The only path out of Syria was through Beirut.
Though the border of Lebanon was only 25-kilometres from his house, Asad would have to pass through about 12 checkpoints, a dangerous trip. He was worried that his name would resemble one of the names kept on a list at the checkpoint, but the decision to leave was nonetheless a no-brainer.
“It was a chance, like of all the other chances I was thinking of, (this is not the only one), I came to the point that I had to do it,” he said.
Asad arrived in Beirut and travelled directly to the airport because he had already booked a flight to Turkey. His destination was Izmir, the so-called “capital of the smugglers”.
He began conducting interviews with auditioning smugglers, trying to pick the right candidate to get him across the border safely. He said his entrepreneurial skills came in handy.
“One of the biggest skills of entrepreneurs is judging people or finding opportunities and figuring out which to bet on,” he said.
“You have to really measure his story. He is promising you a lot. Is he promising too much?”
Asad said he politely declined the smuggler who showed him a picture of his yacht.
“I said no, no, no. A stingray? No way man.”
He opted for the “honest” looking smuggler who told him there were no other routes, he would have to take a rubber dingy to Europe.
“That was what I promised my family I would never do,” he said. It was the only way they allowed me to take the trip. Taking the rubber boat, that is the one thing I promised I would never touch. But this guy told me: ‘listen, you want to go to Europe you have to take the rubber boat.'”
The day he was planning to leave, Asad went early to the spot the smuggler told him to meet at. He kept receiving phone calls every 10 minutes, changing the location of their location, to ensure he wasn’t followed.
“A big van came, stopped, the door opened and the people inside asked me to jump in,” Asad recounted. “I jumped in. At the beginning I couldn’t see much because it was dark, but then I realised there were a pile of guys inside.
“It was a four hour drive. We arrived close to the beach as it was getting dark. We got out and they just asked us to keep walking. Ten, 15 minutes later it became really dark and all of a sudden it was so pitch dark that I could not even see my own hand.
“I really had to depend on the guys walking in front of me. I kept telling them to please keep talking because that was the only way I could follow them. I could tell I was walking close to the beach because I could hear it and smell it, but I couldn’t feel it below me so we must have been on a cliff. The road is really tilted, it’s not paved. You are at danger of falling. They tell you: ‘if you fall, that’s it, we leave you, we can’t stop for you’. The rule was ‘just keep walking’. No one would stop for anything. It took eight hours, ducking through trees.”
The group could see NATO ships on the horizon with their floodlights searching for boats leaving land. So they decided to camp down for the night.
“It didn’t take long before the sun came out, but to my surprise, instead of them saying we abort the trip, they said, ‘no, we move right now’. All of a sudden there was this boat that looked about seven metres long. There were 42 of us. We discovered there were kids between these guys, that was the scary part.”
For a while some of the men discussed calling the whole thing off.
“We didn’t want to take this response, with these kids, you know?,” he said. “But the guy said ‘the boat is leaving, you leave on it or you stay, it’s up to you’. So their parents, or their moms – some of them didn’t have a father with them – they said, ‘we’re going’. The whole trip took about three-and-a-half hours.
“I kept my eye on this little child thinking all the way, if we capsize, what am I going to do for this kid…?”
The refugees arrived on a small island, line with houses. They were stopped at a checkpoint where they stayed until the next day when a big ship came and took them to the island of Samos.
“In Samous they kept us incarcerated in like a camp, they call it, but really it’s a jail because it was locked,” he said.
“They confine you, to make sure you get your papers…They checked that I was Syrian, that my papers were correct and they gave me this piece of paper which says I could stay in Greece. Of course they do this so you can find a way to get out. Then I went to Athens to find a smuggler.”
It would be three weeks until they received papers to allow them to move to Greece and from there they went to Athens to start looking for the guy who was going to take them to the next stage of this trip.
One of the things that caught Asad’s attention as an entrepreneur was the way they collected money to pay for the journey.
“It was a brilliant, simple system,” he said. “The way it works, the guy you agree with, the smuggler, once you agree on the price he takes you to a third party, and this third party takes the money from you and gives you a little piece of paper with a code in it. And he tells you, ‘you don’t give this code until you arrive at your destination, to your smuggler and he will collect, according to this code’. That’s it.”
“The problem is, I saw guys with 20,000 euros handing it to this guy they don’t know, that they have never seen and this guy gives them a small piece of paper with a number and that’s it. And we had to trust that.
“I asked myself, ‘can I trust myself to give my money to this guy?’ Why would this guy not just take the money? When I see this line of people with all this cash, I thought ‘why would this guy screw it up for my money?’. Why would he stop this flowing river of money by screwing up with one guy? No, he is going to be very accurate and very precise.
“So I felt no, trust it, don’t worry, it’s real, and it was. The problem is, I had to give him all the money I had for the other part of my trip, which he would give back to me in Greece. He gives you the name and number of the guy to collect the money from, so you take it and then you just call. And that’s what happened. I went to Greece. I called the guy he said, ‘oh yeah, I have your money, come over’. I went and he handed me all the money back. Perfect.”
Asad decided the Netherlands was to be his final destination. Though many people told him it was very difficult to get there directly, somehow he ran into a smuggler who told him that not only was it possible, he could fly him there first class.
“That was it. I jumped at it,” he said.
“You have to understand why I took it. The agreement was that he wouldn’t collect any money until I arrived in the Netherlands. For me it was crucial this guy would make sure I arrived safely, because the cost of every try is going to be too much for him.”
The smuggler insisted Asad buy a nice suit and some shoes, “to look like a doctor” and take some pictures of the clothes for his approval. He only selected people who could fit-in comfortably at an airport.
“It has to be someone who knows how to move around, not clumsy or scared,” he said.
“He can’t be young, because in airports they look at young guys. You have to look a little bit…Southern European maybe.”
The smuggler gave Asad his papers on the way to the airport.
Though he had been to airports many times before, and thought he would not make any mistakes, Asad says he made every error in the book.
“The most difficult moment was while the plane was boarding,” he said. “Here I am, standing in line to go inside, and there’s this guy in front of me who looks so European. Real blond guy, tall and he’s carrying papers just like mine. He hands his paper to the lady and she looks at them and she says, ‘please sir, step aside’. I said ‘forget it, I’m caught.’ I went completely blank, I don’t remember anything. All of a sudden I woke up and this lady is asking me, ‘sir, please keep moving because there’s people behind you’. And I’m like, ‘oh my God!’.
“I had a message on my phone to send to my wife that I’m okay but I couldn’t send it. I was waiting until the plane takes off. The second I was up in the air, I would press the button and send the message.”
“Amsterdam is where I stayed because it was not up to me,” Asad said. “I had to right away to this place where you hand over your papers and start your asylum seeking process. Then they take you around to different camps, and they put you in a camp where you sit and wait for your reunification papers and for your family.”
Asad and his fellow travellers were told they were not allowed to work until they received their papers, learned the language and have their families join them.
Despite this, Asad decided to go down the entrepreneurial route, and started up The Refugee Company almost straight away.
“For me, I was preaching entrepreneurship and I thought I should start my own business. These guys are scared of taking this step, because they don’t know the pitfalls. So I felt that let me go through the pitfalls for them. Let me try it out.”
“You have to understand, these guys lost everything. They have nothing to rely on. So if you ask them to take any kind of a risk, they’re scared.”
He said refugee entrepreneurs do not have the kind of appetite for risk as those living in a country of which they are a citizen or resident.
“You lose that as a refugee, which is the main principle of what you build your life on.
“You lose your friends, you lose your connections, you lose your name which you have built for years.”
Rather than the issue being of money, Asad said it was mainly one of time.
“There’s never a shortage of money,” he said. “The problem is first of connections and networks.
“Time is actual, not money. It’s even more valuable than money. Money comes and goes. Time, that’s it. It’s gone and it’s never coming back. There is no way to recreate it.
“For me, as a refugee, connection is the most important thing, because I lost it. No one knows me. I am just a number.”
The remit of the Refugee Company was to allow refugees to put their skills on display and showcase their talents.
“Let’s say you have a talent. How would anybody know about your talent if you don’t showcase it somehow?,” he said. “At least let’s try to show it to some people and even if they are not interested, maybe they will know someone who is.
“When you ask people to showcase their talent right away, you make them break a big barrier of ‘maybe I’m not good enough’. They begin to think, ‘well, maybe I could have a value for whatever it is that I do.’
“I was talking to a carpenter trying to convince him to do something at the Refugee Company. He said, ‘forget it. In Syria, we are probably so backward in our way of doing things. These guys are much more talented.’ I said, ‘ok, well let’s test that claim out’. So I hooked him up with another carpenter. This guy went to work with him for a few days, he came back and said ‘I can do an even better job than this guy. Forget it. I can improve what he’s doing.’ All of a sudden this guy is so enthusiastic and now he has started his own business.”
Since the day he founded The Refugee Company, Asad has been acting as a conductor putting together an orchestra of workers, figuring out what sounds good, what people, instruments or skills work well together.
“I can’t help everybody,” he said. “I look at it as, if I can help one at a time, I’m happy. Of course we also try to do things involving bigger groups. But for me personally, I wanted to help one-on-one with the entrepreneur part. This is my talent, this is what I can do well. These guys can learn how to manage money, or how to run a business, but they surely don’t know the soft skills about this country. The way you dress, the way you talk, the way you present yourself. Punctuality.”
Understanding how to operate in a working culture that is completely different from one’s origin country is a big part of being successful in business, he says.
“In my country we don’t believe in being on time,” he said.
“Forget it. In my country, there’s always tomorrow. I see you tomorrow, there could be any minute, any day, any hour.
“In this country, no. It’s a culture of being punctual and talking business right away.
“You go to a meeting, you say ‘hi, how are you, this-and-that and then boom, you’re talking about substance right away.
“Whereas in Syria, forget it. We talk about everything except substance. We let the secretaries talk it over. As long as you’ve made the connection with the guy, that’s it.”
The entrepreneur says it is important for new arrivals to understand they cannot dictate culture.
“You came to this country, you have to understand their culture,” he said.
“You have to learn, maybe show yours, and if they like parts of it, maybe they will learn from it, but I cannot impose it on them.”
The entrepreneur said refugees are hungry and eager to work, persistent and tougher than you can imagine, but the potential for alienation and depression looms large.
“You have to understand, refugees are here against their will,” he said. “They didn’t choose to live in a certain country, they are forced to go. Although he made the trip consciously, it is really occurring against his will.
“I wish I was back home in my own country, with my own people. But I am here because I have to be.
“But most of the people who had the life, you have to understand, they were people with a standard of living maybe with with everything in life available to them, and now they have lost it.
“These guys are hungry. They are eager. They are persistent. They are tougher than you can imagine.
“The refugee has so much toughness in his personality now because of all he has had to fight for until he came here, and now he will put it all into going back to his level of life.
“But if he can’t do it right away, if you put him in a place secluded on the sideline, doing nothing, living off help, after five, six years this guy will become used to this way of life and he will become a person without hope.
“But if you catch him at the time when he first arrives, I tell you, you feel that nothing can stop me.”
The entrepreneur says the biggest mistake European authorities have made is sidelining the refugee community in detention, incarceration and camps. Refugees have to give up everything they know, for a chance of eventual safety. They want to work and contribute economically to the countries that have taken them in.
“I’m totally against putting them on the sidelines,” Asad says. “I think that is the biggest mistake they make. I’ve seen in the past people who went to countries where they were not sidelined. They were able to blend-in, to learn the language, to work, to become part of it in a matter of months.
“These guys are people who lost everything and want to do whatever it takes to go back to their way of life.
“They want to work hard. They want to learn, study whatever. But if you put them into a very specific and confined environment and ask them only do specific things, it might get to a point where they think it’s even worse than war.
“Let’s say, at the Refugee Company, maybe we did not help too many people, but believe it or not if we can help a certain number, and others can do their part, then others can do their part, it makes a big difference.
“You can see the community over here, that people have really got into it. They become part of it, you know? This became like a home to them”.
Asad says he is happy finally because his children are safe.
“They can finally maybe start building a life,” he said. “I don’t want them to live a life of temporality, or uncertainty. For my side, it’s okay. I’ve done my share. There’s nothing that presses on me, nothing that I feel I still want to do.
“As long as my family is happy, I’m happy.”
Watch the full episode of Renegade Inc above to learn more about Jay Asad’s journey and how refugees can contribute to the economies of their adopted countries.
Is the pursuit of happiness even possible? Or does this goal actually make life increasingly miserable and liberty more elusive?