At the heart of the City lies St Ethelburga-the-Virgin of Bishopsgate, a church that sees itself as a ‘maker of peacemakers’. It has long been dedicated to inspiring individuals and communities to contribute to global peace. It was a fitting location for the launch of a bold initiative by Charlie and Ben Fraser, aged just 23 and 22.
As guests at the launch, we were first invited into the Empathy Museum, within a yurt in the church garden. We were given a pair of shoes to wear while listening to their owner’s story. The idea was to warm us up before Charlie and Ben asked for contributions for their initiative, The Entrepreneurial Refugees Network (TERN).
The refugees who have benefitted from TERN were there and Charlie explained how it all began. ‘In 2015, Ben and I went to Kos for two weeks as volunteers to help refugees,’ he says. ‘I led a group from Oxford University and Ben followed. Ben came back and started researching into refugees in the UK and became involved in Refugees Welcome, part of Citizens UK.’
Corporations need to recognise that including refugees is a fundamental way to improve society
Charlie explained that the British government is only committed to taking in refugees if Citizens UK handle integration into society, but there has been a failing around employment. ‘The struggle to get refugees into the country was so big that no-one had thought about how we best support them after that and there was a huge entrepreneurial demand not being met,’ continues Charlie. ‘We had access to finance and a social network that the refugees could never dream of having. We thought, “What if we gave them the same platform we have? Could they become successful entrepreneurs?”’
Meanwhile, Ben attended the Techfugees Summit, where he met Frédéric Kastner, who was delivering entrepreneurial programmes in Africa with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Fuse School and had started his own enterprise, Beyond Refuge. Ben and Fred answered a call from Scott McDonald, CEO of Oliver Wyman, City-based global management consultant experts, asking what more his company could do to assist refugees. Oliver Wyman gave Ben and Fred two months of consultancy support, with a consultant to work alongside them and access to their partner network. Charlie had just graduated from Oxford and joined them, and in October 2016 they launched a tiny pilot with three refugees. TERN was born.
The first three refugees were Faith, a Zimbabwean fashion designer and two tech entrepreneurs from Syria, Aomar and Sakher. ‘Faith had been here for almost ten years as an asylum seeker,’ explains Charlie. ‘She was designing clothes for nurses and working on bringing the bright colours of African fashion into NHS mental health wards. Aomar had developed an app, Wasel Gifts, an idea that came to him after his first Christmas in Britain when he was destitute and unable to buy anyone a present. Wasel Gifts is a way of putting points onto a card and using it in numerous retail outlets. Sakher was part of the founding team of Akeed Online, a start-up seeking to provide anti-fake-news software, a fact-checker for the Arab world.
‘The three didn’t need finance but they did need major networks and people with knowledge of UK businesses to help them set up and launch,’ says Charlie. ‘Aomar wanted to connect with people with experience in software development and marketing. Faith was established but was making all the clothes at home and needed to scale up and start manufacturing. Sakher needed access to a venture capitalist to help scale Akeed Online.’
A year on Sakher is working with a software development company, Aomar has 23 vendors accepting the Wasel Gifts app in Cardiff and Faith has moved into new office space that she’s renovating. Charlie is delighted: ‘We started TERN on the assumption that the refugee community was overflowing with talent, ambition and experience, and it was wonderful to have our faith so completely rewarded by the first three entrepreneurs we worked with.’
In February this year, TERN launched another larger programme for 15 refugees, picked from a shortlist of 60. Ben & Jerry’s stepped in to offer part-time employment and a living wage while refugees work on their projects and are now funding TERN to deliver a business development programme that allows refugees to construct and test business concepts. The latest entrepreneurs include Ahmad, a Syrian chef who has started the Aleppo Supper Club; Irina, a Russian jewellery designer; and Ameer, a Syrian who has set up a laundry drop-in service for Battersea residents. Ahmad will be hosting the Red Cross Christmas Fair this November and discussing his cuisine with Lloyd Grossman; Irina is expanding her client base and working on an online platform; and Ameer’s laundry initiative was recently featured in a local magazine.
‘There is no bigger global challenge today than the movement of people,’ says Charlie. ‘We really believe the private sector, if socially motivated, has a huge role to play and can step up to meet the challenge. Despite a huge range of skills and experience, refugees remain a disparate and diverse segment of society, excluded from mainstream financial institutions and labour markets. This chronic marginalisation represents a fundamental challenge to our claims to be an open, fair, compassionate and inclusive society. If we’re going to keep that dream alive, corporations need to engage directly and recognise that including refugees is a fundamental way to improve society. Their inclusion goes way beyond a simple CSR project, and into the deep-roots of how we conduct business and promote opportunity in Britain.’
Wise words from one not yet 25.