Every Monday Refugees Forward will profile a Newcomer Entrepreneur.
Anas Ragheb launched Mpowerment after participating in the Refugees Forward Startup Weekend and Incubator Programs in 2018. This enterprise provides newcomers in the country the ability to gain license and employment as truck drivers in the Netherlands.
At Refugees Forward, Anas Ragheb worked with Shyam Ramkumar as a business coach.
Anas Ragheb studied English Literature in Syria and then followed it up with a diploma in Tourism. His education allowed him to launch a career in the commercial sector where he worked as a Customer Support Team Leader in the telecom industry. Anas then shifted base to Dubai where he worked in the fashion industry while managing stores and leading marketing campaigns for luxury brands as diverse as YSL, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. In 2011, he travelled back to Syria that was beginning to get engulfed by the crisis that has moved into its eighth-year today. Given that the employment sector was downsizing, Anas found employment as an English professor, and he trained young professionals for jobs along the way till 2015. By then, the crisis had enveloped the country, and Anas decided a move was imminent for the sake of his two children. That year he came to the Netherlands. Nine months later he received asylum. His family joined him soon enough. By June 2017, after having been stationed in several cities in the country, Anas laid roots in Weesp with his family.
“During the nine months, I studied Dutch all on my own using online tools. Maybe 10-20 words a day. By the end of that phase, I had learnt about 2000 words,” an enterprising Anas says with a smile.
Once he gained a residence in the Netherlands, Anas began taking formal classes in the language. Today he is conversant in Dutch and can read and understand the language well.
“I can converse for an hour. After that, it becomes a little difficult. But it is getting better,” he confesses proving that learning a language is akin to an athletic endeavour where the muscle strengthens with practice.
With his family reunited with him in October 2016, Anas began looking for viable career opportunities. In the beginning, he wanted to return to teaching English. However, he realised that the job required him to gain certifications that would take three years, a commitment that required more time than he had at his disposal.
“I also felt I could do translations. Perhaps…” he adds. “Arabic to Dutch and back. But that meant I had to master Dutch at the same level as Arabic and that again would take time.”
It is during this time that Anas began volunteering for an organisation that helped refugees start their lives in the country. By 2017, he was training young Syrians who had come to the Netherlands, leaving behind war and destruction.
“It was a gratifying experience to give back to those who were coming to the country and were new to the surroundings. I did some training and coaching workshops for them.”
The idea of creating a business had thus been sown. Anas decided to streamline certification and employment processes for newcomers who had artisan skills that were not formal. With this thought process, he stumbled upon Refugees Forward in early 2018. Soon he was onboard the first Start Up Weekend where his idea received substantial recognition while putting a microscope on his own capabilities, the challenges that were anticipated, the potential of the concept itself, and the benefits of working within a multination setting.
“I made it to the incubator as well. In between the start-up weekend and incubator, I finetuned the idea, communicated with people and tried to establish some contacts. But the best thing was pitching the idea, I received a lot of positive reaction. People said it was much needed,’ Anas informs with a sense of satisfaction. ‘It gave me a lot of confidence.’
In between the two events, Anas finished an internship as an English tutor, and that solidified his thought process that teaching was not going to be his vocation. He dived headfirst into entrepreneurship.
“At the incubator, I was introduced to Shyaam. The team included two students, Laura and Renee as well. It was fun. We have kept in touch and continue to meet often. The fact that my idea had a social impact that supported people who found little assistance, to begin with, inspired the team to give their all.” He sings praises for his mentor Shyaam who was disciplined and committed weekends to the project while creating strategic action plans that allowed the team to remain focused on deliverables for the duration of the incubator.
The fact that my idea had a social impact that supported people who found little assistance, to begin with, inspired the team to give their all
‘That kept us on track. He is really skilled with management, and so he led us from behind. He worked on the pitch, the details of the project, and with a background in sustainability, was able to see why the project was needed,” Anas articulates with a sense of nostalgia. “Laura and Renee were wonderful as well. Renee helped me with translations and local information. Laura was the youngest in the team but motivated and helped solidify the idea.”
Once the team began work, under the mentorship of Shyaam, Anas decided that the initial idea needed focus. After a market research that revealed construction workers and truck drivers were the need of the hour in the Netherlands, Anas decided the transportation industry was the most viable given the straightforward certification and employment possibilities. However, the move brought its fair share of roadblocks. Anas and the team had the contend with a streamlined process where potential drivers needed certification from an institute that cost money. The money had to come from the municipality that would only commit if transport companies would agree to take on the drivers for jobs in principal. Given three entities had to come together simultaneously, Anas had his work cut out. This meant lengthy amounts of time where no progress was seen.
“I believed the idea was going to add value to the Dutch society and that I could make a difference. I did not know it would take me ages to make agreements, but I progressed bit by bit. I believe if you are perseverant, you see results,” Anas declares with a sense of accomplishment.
After much work, Anas did sign a deal that eventually fell through when commitments began to change. However, the idea had found validation, and he learnt essential lessons in starting with deals with transport companies and not putting all his eggs in one basket.
“Today I have one driver who is getting his certification done that takes about 12-14 weeks. In March 2019 he will begin to work with the transport company I have a deal with. I have three informal deals, and if the funding that I am waiting for comes through, I will have about five more drivers enrolled in the program.”
As he reflects on the road he has travelled, Anas has fond things to say about Refugees Forward.
“I received a huge amount of emotional support, and more so after the program ended. They see us as people and no more. It is empowering. I can procrastinate, but Laura especially kept me on track by being demanding. I still go to David and Diederick for help as well as to Shyaam, Renee and Laura.”
While the bureaucracy has been difficult to crack, Anas found an ally there whose hopes he wants to uphold by creating an employment agency that meaningfully contributes to the Dutch society. In doing so, he also becomes an advocate for newcomers who find themselves in new territories against their will after having left wonderfully fulfilled lives behind. He hopes that people will notice the trauma and hurt along with the cultural shock the entire crisis has brought on them.
“I am a human, and hopefully a citizen someday with rights and obligations. I take my obligations seriously. Life is a give and take. I have been given much here, and I hope my work allows me to give back as well.”
If the spirit of social entrepreneurship could be summed up, no one did better than Anas.