Young Syrian entrepreneurs turn their plight into creative projects
Nazlan Ertan – GAZİANTEPDara Dandashi, a 25-year-old interior designer from Homs in Syria, travels to Gaziantep from Istanbul once a month to work on a project to design a cozy and unique corner in each household that can provide an “escape” from the day.
The project, called “Corners,” is inspired by her experience of changing places over the course of the war in Syria. When fighting started in Homs, Dara and her family briefly moved to Damascus. After the country plunged deep into war, she came to Istanbul.
“It is difficult to work in Turkey without learning Turkish. That is why I am focusing on learning Turkish now. My biggest break so far is designing a café from scratch in Mersin. But mostly I work online outside with clients in Cyprus and Lebanon,” she told the Hürriyet Daily News in Gaziantep.
“The Corners project will start with a strong client-designer relationship, where I will try to understand what works for you to feel relaxed and happy. Then I will design that unique, cozy and modifiable corner for you,” she said.
Dara and her brother Farouk are part of a 29-member group of Turkish and Syrian entrepreneurs in the InnoCampus Entrepreneurship Accelerator Training Program in Gaziantep, supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Turkey Mission and Gaziantep University. With two thirds of the participants being Syrian and other refugees, while the rest are locals, the project creates platform of integration as well as cross-cultural cooperation.
A sum of our experience
“The training has generated significant interest among the Syrian community in Turkey, particularly among educated/skilled refugees who are having difficulty finding employment to match their qualifications” said Abby Dwommoh, IOM Turkey Spokeswoman. Similarly, those who are interested in starting a business, or current business owners needing additional training, are also among the applicants.
The 10 projects selected for the program mostly reflect the plight of budding entrepreneurs as well as their sharp observations on the needs of the Gaziantep region. Husam Beyazıd, an eloquent Cambridge graduate and one of the most outspoken people in the group on his encounters with locals’ prejudices, is working on a TED-style platform for refugees to share their success stories.
A five-member team that consists mostly of engineers - Tareq Khanji, Alaa Bakour, Ahmad al-Mosa, Atilla al-Amo, and Radwan Mouket - are working on an urban planning service specializing in refugee data. They have the experience and have used a similar methodology in Syria to determine the urban needs of several cities.
Another project, Robots Café, uses robots to reach out to children in Gaziantep who have lost their parents in the war. Besides helping these children with their recovery, the team aims to use robots as a tool to help with a diverse set of topics such as poetry, astronomy and teamwork. The team would also like to expand these trainings to all children to compliment the traditional education system.
“We use the InnoCampus entrepreneurship training to help the young entrepreneurs realize their dreams,” explained Memet Ünsal, the program director for InnoCampus, a non-profit organization that provides innovation and entrepreneurship training free of charge.
The 100-hour program, given by experts in their fields, includes a wide range of issues from finance management to creative communication.
“We have been to many cities in Turkey, from Adana to Çanakkale. What we want to do is to roll out to the rest of the country and to Jordan, Lebanon and Greece,” he said.
Ünsal, who left the corporate life to become one of the founders of InnoCampus Turkey, reaches out to his network to find qualified trainers and mentors who help participants free of charge. He also has an eye for new technologies that would enable participants to hone their skills.
“Each team selected to the program has mentors who support them as they develop their business ideas throughout the program. We also have what we call a ‘FabLab’ where users can build prototypes. 3D printer, laser cutting and Arduino workshops are also given in order to teach rapid prototyping methods,” Ünsal said.
‘Intelligence having fun’
The training includes a wide variety, ranging from presentation skills to market analysis. Some of the sessions, such as the financial training by Taylan Demirkaya from the İzmir Economics University, are deadpan serious, with the participants trying hard to make a budget and justify it. In others, such as the management coaching given by Tim Bright, a partner at OneWorld Consulting, the participants try to analyze their strengths in life and business.
In the rhythmic and dramatic communication sessions given by Ahu Sıla Bayer and Özgür Atanur, participants display unusual gifts for music and stage-acting.
“Explain to me your project without uttering a word,” commands Atanur.
The attempts of participants to do so becomes particularly impressive as they try to describe a mobile application that would bring together dieters and dieticians, or a plan to teach artisans among the refugees how to create trendier products. One of the latter, called “Joon,” put together by three students from the Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara, has already won an international award for entrepreneurship in London.
The training sessions take place over a space of 90 meters square in three containers, which can be set up and disassembled in just a day. “The containers have changed the atmosphere. We feel that this space is our own. Often both the team and the entrepreneurs are reluctant to even leave it,” said Ünsal.
For some of the participants, InnoCampus is also the testing ground of their projects. Dara will use her Corners idea to design a corner in the container and the Robot Café is currently being used in InnoCampus’ children’s activities, InnoKido.
“What the budding entrepreneurs need are networks and a bit of seed money,” Ünsal said.
The next step is to get some of the teams to Istanbul to meet with mentors and investors, with the help of one of the project mentors, Tuğrul Ağırbaş, the Anadolu Efes director for corporate functions.
On May 10, the end of the program, the projects will be introduced to other possible partners and investors, such as members of the chambers of industry and commerce, SMEs and local businessmen.