In A Refugee Camp, Entrepreneurship Thrives In Isobox Containers
Makeshift salons and barbershops, restaurants and cafes, tailors and mini-markets compose a micro-economy that’s sprawling.
Photos: Ryan Lucas-Henderson
“The Syrian people are unable to sit still and be without work for extended periods of time. We are hardworking people, and we will always find a means to work: for us, for our families, and most importantly for our communities.” One always hears Syrians mentioning this phrase as they gather materials, begin construction, and complete the work of building a business within the camp. The boom of entrepreneurship in Skaramagas is the result of an increase in refugees living within the camp, an influx from the islands, along with a growing sense of restlessness as the inhabitants await the results of their legal status. This creates a perfect storm for business development.
Ahmed above says, “ I pass my days by working in the restaurant from 4pm-2am. I get paid a salary and interact with everyone from the camp. What more could a young man, like me, living in the camp want? Sitting in the container doing nothing all day makes time go by so slow. Making sandwiches passes the time by fast. I have made over two-thousand sandwiches since I have been here.”
Weaving in and out of the Isobox containers, where refugees live, one sees clothes hanging to dry, old UNHCR tents placed on the ledges of homes to connect them and create shaded areas, women peeling potatoes and gossiping about the latest happenings in the camp, children playing with one another, and, if you look very closely in the spaces between containers, barbershops. In these barber shops, refugees set up mirrors, chairs, clippers, shears, hair dryers, and most importantly styling gel, a staple in every Middle Eastern man’s hair. Syrians who used to cut hair in their hometowns bring these skills to the camp and utilize them for their own profit and to help their fellow refugees achieve the latest and stylish haircuts, the ones they see their favorite soccer players sporting, but for a tenth of the price. A barbershop owner says, “Why should my Syrian brother have to pay 10 euros for a haircut in Athens, when he can have it for 1 euro here, within walking distance of his home?” Yet by now, the camp has over 10 barber shops. The Law of Supply and Demand tells us that if the supply increases and the demand remains the same, there will be a surplus; this is evident in the high numbers of barbershops within the camp and the limited population that now seeks each of their services.
Many individuals have been living in Greece for over a year while anxiously awaiting answers about their status. This process takes months, if not years, and refugees in Skaramagas are growing tired of waiting. A barber may have no more than 2–3 customers a day, which results in low-profit margins. Yet, as every barbershop owner explains, the initial motive for creating a business is not to generate profit, but to provide a change from the mundane routine of spending 24 hours in the containers. This business gives each owner a reason to get up in the morning and carry on his or her day as they usually would. They left livelihoods that include; interior designer, restaurant owner, barber, architect, salesman, construction worker, chef, tailor, and many others. As one man recounts, “They’ve bombed our homes, jeopardized the lives of our loved ones, and forced us to endure journeys not even movies can replicate, but the one thing that is still ours and can never be taken from us is the work we produce with our God-given hands.”
Walking around Skaramagas on any given day, there will be a new business open, one being constructed, and several being expanded or accommodated to changing seasons. Vegetable stands strategically line the only entrance into the camp. Refugees pass by these stands leaving and coming into the camp, and the smells of fresh parsley and ripe oranges often sway passersby into purchasing. No need to worry about an inability to communicate when making purchases; since moving to the camp, many refugees have become polyglots, able to carry on conversations in Dari, Farsi, Sorani, Kurmanji, and Arabic. While many of these businesses are owned and run by men, a trend not surprising given the patriarchal structure of Syrian society, female entrepreneurship is also thriving. On the contrary, women are the primary produce sellers because they understand how to pick and purchase the best quality fruits and vegetables to bring back to the camp to sell. One woman snickered, “The ability to pick the sweetest, ripest and most flavorful fruit and vegetables are the work of a woman’s hands.” Competition between produce stands is evident based on varying prices, yet a sense of camaraderie is ever-present. One woman will watch the stand of a fellow produce vendor as she returns to her container for an hour to make dinner or take care of several chores, and vice versa.
Women in the camp that want a new hairstyle can visit one of several “women only” hair salons that cater to those wearing headscarves. For women looking to purchase new hijabs, pins, and full-length Muslim dresses, some shops sell them pre-made, or tailor shops, run by refugees out of their containers, create dresses from scratch along with one’s choice of fabric. One woman purchased a used sewing machine and runs her business out of her home. Each family receives one container to live in within the camp. The container consists of two rooms with a bathroom in between. This seamstress moved her four family members into one bedroom to sleep and built herself a sewing studio in the other. She is known around the camp for the quality of her work. Men and women alike come knocking at her door to tailor their pants or make them a whole new outfit from start to finish.
Najma (above) says, “I love making women in the camp feel beautiful. They always come here and ask me to do their hair and makeup. Because some of these women are Muslims, they shy away from going into Athens to a salon with male hairdressers. Here, they are comfortable with me and I am comfortable with them. Back in Iraq, there are women only salons, but in Europe that is not the case. There is a need in the camp and my salon fills this need”
In Skaramagas, restaurants are the real profit-winning businesses. Waterfront properties in Syria are not attainable for many business owners as the rent is very high and space is limited, yet in Skaramagas, all you need are some savings, a few business partners, supplies gathered from around the camp, and a general spirit of entrepreneurship to build a waterfront restaurant “fit for kings,” as one refugee explained. In the camp, there is a strip of land about a mile long that borders the water and building property is on a “first come first serve” basis. A year ago, there were only a few businesses on the water, however, in recent weeks the waterfront reached maximum capacity, with restaurants packed side by side.
Danish (above) a Syrian Kurd says, “My daughter has a lung condition. Once I got to Athens, I realized I had to start my own restaurant, in the camp, to take care of my daughter and save up for my family’s future. A lot of the money I make from this restaurant I use to take her to more specialized doctors outside of the camp that provide her with proper treatment.”
These businesses include a mixture of restaurants and cafés with sparkling lights and loud music that create an ambiance similar to cafés in the Middle East. Refugees use their monthly stipends, along with their own savings, to build, design, and run their restaurants competitively. Old UNHCR tents, metal, and scraps of wood found around the camp one day, are transformed into the sturdy walls of a new hookah cafe the next. The mark of a genuinely thriving business within the camp is its constant renovation every month to cater to more customers. These restaurants feed more than just refugees; volunteers from the NGOs who work in the camp are daily customers, and recently Greeks from the city center are dining there as well. Some restaurants offer delivery services within the camp. Using WhatsApp or Viber, you can call the owner and request a delivery of hookah, drinks, or food to your container, free of charge. The Facebook page for the refugees living in Skaramagas is a platform for new businesses to post about their grand openings, or for old businesses to share new menu items.
Different regions in Syria have unique recipes that attract different customers. One refugee tells me, “the hummus served at the restaurant second to last on the strip, is just like home.” While some choose to spend their money at restaurants and shops owned by those from the same country or even the same city, others develop relationships with those from different backgrounds and expand their social networks to include Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, and Iranians.
Mostafa (above) says, “Many Syrian refugees want to leave Greece and go to other countries like Germany, Sweden, Norway, or Belgium. I do not want to leave. I am happy in Greece and want to stay here for the rest of my life. Here is where my future is. I have been here [Skaramagas Camp] for only one month and have built a business that attracts hundreds of customers. People come to the restaurant and ask for me, specifically, to make their sandwiches or else they won’t eat here. If this is the result of one month’s hard work, imagine the restaurant I can build in Greece with the rest of my lifetime. You want to know the secret? quality and quantity, you must have both for success. Take my hummus for example. I make a tub of hummus and put as much tahini in it as I would back in Syria. I do not cut corners like some of the other restaurant owners in the camp. Because Tahini is expensive they do not use as much as the recipe calls for. For me, the margin of profit is less per tub of hummus but at least the customer is happy. If the customer is happy they come back for me and the hummus. Good quality hummus always builds customer loyalty.”
The evolution of these businesses from their inception onward is evident through the expansion of the physical property and the constant addition of new and more involved menu items. When these restaurants first open they offer simple items such as falafel sandwiches and beverages. However, as these businesses make profit and expand, they begin serving items like spicy chicken sandwiches and kebab wraps, which require more preparation and appliances such as stovetops, grills, and refrigerators. These menu additions are popular with customers, as they provide them with a variety of options to choose from. Restaurant owners are exceptionally strategic about when to release new items on the menu, based on time periods when income is the highest. One owner says, “I am planning to start a barbecue meat station in my restaurant on the first day of the upcoming month, because the beginning of every month is when customers receive their stipends from the cash cards, and their purchasing power is at its highest.”
In recent weeks, businesses are sprawling at an exponentially higher rate than usual. Several owners building businesses claim it is a direct response to the projected influx of refugees into Skaramagas from the detention centers on the islands. Ready-made food served in these restaurants will be the lifeline for newly-arrived refugees who do not yet have the resources to make home-cooked meals. New businesses have the opportunity to build a loyal clientele of newly-arrived refugees, as more established businesses in the camp have already done. No outside restaurant, grocery store, or café can be reached by foot from the camp. Therefore, these entrepreneurs capitalize on their proximity to their fellow refugees as a means to provide quick and speedy services that otherwise would take hours in total to obtain.
The question of permanency still begs to be answered, for those pouring their savings and monthly stipends into the creation and upkeep of these businesses. Syrians are eligible for relocation, yet they are the number one ethnic group within the camp who own businesses. For them, the entire process of building and maintaining businesses is a way to pass the days, months, and for many, years, while living Greece, with nothing else to do. Several owners sense that the waiting game will continue, and notifications regarding status may take longer than ever before. The rise of businesses is a way to make a higher income, spend time outside of their containers, and use the skills of their livelihoods from Syria. What is uniform for all business owners is the lack of attachment to their businesses, if and when they receive opportunities for relocation or travel documents to leave Greece, they simply sell their businesses to newly arrived refugees. One man says, “I bought this business from a Syrian man who built it, he ran it for 2 months and then relocated to Germany. Once I have an answer on my family’s status regarding relocation, the cycle will continue, and I will sell this business to someone still in the early stages of the process. These businesses are temporary, but my family’s future somewhere else in the EU is forever.”