Refugees, migrants redefine label through entrepreneurship

21 November 2019

Entrepreneurs in difficult situations show there is more to the migrant or refugee label.

Bombs were dropping in Yemen, but that didn’t stop one Yemeni woman from completing the task at hand: baking a massive cake.

Being displaced by the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which began in 2015, didn’t mean a life of cowing in a corner for this woman entrepreneur.

Life doesn’t stop, neither does people’s craving for cake.

Her resilience was captured by documentary photographer Thana Faroq in an image now on display at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva Switzerland.

“I never stop craving something sweet,” she told Ms. Faroq, and this made her realize that her neighbours likely felt the same way, igniting a small business.

Ms. Faroq, also from Yemen, is exhibiting her image alongside 30 other photographs featured in a joint initiative by UNCTAD, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to change the narrative around refugees and migrants.

While migrants and refugees need a new place to call home, their journeys don’t stop there. Most want to live productive lives, earn a living, support their families and make a meaningful contribution, both in new communities and their home countries.

Ms. Faroq said witnessing the resilience of women in Yemen helped her deal with the trauma of war.

“War sucks up your energy. But observing women in their households helped me. In the context of Yemen, women are superheroes. They are ‘Wonder Woman’,” she said.

“And it is not only about helping their families, it is also about going beyond the box they are put in.”

Faces of resilience

The 30 images featured in the exhibition show how these entrepreneurs are finding a way to move beyond humanitarian aid to ply their trade.

It also shows the diversity of the refugee and migrant story.

“We decided to host an exhibition because pictures make you see a human being, you have to stop and look them in the eye,” UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said.

“We invite people to come to the exhibit and see a different side of the people behind the label of refugee or migrant.”

The images are honest, raw and inspiring. They also paint a powerful narrative of the “humanitarian–development nexus”.

“Migrant and refugee entrepreneurship is a powerful response to marginalization, isolation, poverty and stigmatization,” said James Zhan, UNCTAD’s director of investment and enterprise.

“Yet, migrants and refugees face obvious barriers to engaging in economic activity. These include their legal status, regulations preventing them from working and accessing basic services, lack of access to start-up financing and formal bank accounts, language and cultural barriers.”

The idea to work on changing the narrative was borne of the ongoing partnership between the three UN organizations and their work on the Policy Guide on Entrepreneurship for Migrants and Refugees – a roadmap for integrating migrants and refugees into local communities.

“The benefits of migration to economic development are seldom visible,” Ms. Durant added. “This exhibit aims to make that which is not easily seen, seen.”

Also on display is a new collective sculpture that renowned artist Romain Langlois of the 111-Days Association Art for Refugees created in collaboration with twenty migrants and refugees in France.

The photo exhibition runs 18 November to 6 December. It is part of Global Entrepreneurship Week celebrations.