For years, Hussam Ali Kaj ran a thriving Web design studio in his native city of Aleppo, in northwestern Syria. Then business dried up as his textile and pharmaceutical customers began leaving the war-torn country. So in January, at the suggestion of a friend, Ali Kaj enrolled in a month-long training boot camp run by Oasis500, a startup accelerator in Amman, Jordan, that has been actively recruiting Syrian ventures. Ali Kaj then persuaded Oasis500 to invest $30,000 in his new company, Websity, a website builder and content management system designed for Arabic speakers. “I’ve been working the last 20 years to achieve something, and suddenly you lose everything, and you have to start somewhere else in a new country,” says the 45-year-old Web designer, whose two children stayed behind in Aleppo. “It’s not a pleasant experience.”
Ali Kaj is part of a Syrian exodus set off by the two-year-old conflict between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1.4 million have registered as refugees with the United Nations. The better off have departed for Europe, while a greater number of displaced business owners have landed in Turkey, Lebanon, and other countries in the region, where they often work menial jobs to get by.
Oasis500 has been recruiting Syrian tech entrepreneurs set adrift by the war—through personal connections, placed articles in Syrian media, and ads on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, as well as Jordanian radio stations. It also pays travel and some housing expenses for Syrian entrepreneurs. Oasis was founded in 2010 by Usama Fayyad, a former chief data officer at Yahoo!, and is backed mainly by Jordanian investors. It also receives some support from the U.S. and Jordanian governments.
In the organization’s January boot camp, 13 of 60 participants were Syrians. Oasis500 invested in two of those entrepreneurs: Ali Kaj and Judy Samakie, who’s building an e-commerce site to help Jordanians find and order healthy food. The current training session has attracted nine Syrians.
The Arab world is particularly well-suited to diaspora entrepreneurs, says Steven Koltai, who started the U.S. Department of State’s Global Entrepreneurship Program in 2010 and has led delegations of American entrepreneurs and investors on visits to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and other countries in the region. With its community of angel investors and a decent communications infrastructure, Jordan is an ideal launching pad for startups targeting the 400-million-strong market of Arabic speakers. “For anything where language is a central tool, there’s a lot of opportunity,” Koltai says. The biggest success story in the Middle East-North Africa region is Maktoob, which billed itself as the first Arabic e-mail provider. The Jordanian startup was acquired by Yahoo in 2009 for $164 million.
Mohanad Ghashim, another Syrian entrepreneur, arrived at Oasis500 in March 2012. A little more than a year later his e-commerce company ShopGo raised $500,000 from Wamda Capital Fund, which invests in early-stage startups in the region, and U.S. venture firm 500 Startups. ShopGo also has inked deals with Google, PayPal, and American Express. Ghashim says those partnerships will go live “in the second half of the year.”
The dire situation makes Syrian transplants more driven to succeed than native Jordanians, says Oasis founder Fayyad. That bodes well for Syria’s future, he says: When the civil war ends, “there’ll be this cadre of entrepreneurs who are engaged in business and ready to help rebuild the country.”
As the conflict drags on, Ali Kaj is adapting. He’s registered his company in Jordan and figures that means sticking around for at least a year. If Websity succeeds, he’d like to move the company to a country with lower overhead costs, but at the moment, it’s difficult to think long-term. “I have to commit to my new project and make it happen to be able to support and help my family.”