After his boat sank trying to reach Europe, Majd Albasha returned to Turkey to become an entrepreneur and built a business from scratch, creating opportunities for other Syrians
Majd Albasha’s voice breaks as he describes the moment his boat sank on the crossing to Greece. “I want to tell Syrians, just don’t go by sea,” he says. More than 50 men, women, and children boarded from Izmir, Turkey that day in June 2015. They were halfway across when the boat went down leaving them stranded in freezing water miles from shore. “I just kept thinking about the film Castaway and how he stayed alive…we lost all our bags, everything we had,” Albasha, 29, says. After two hours of swimming, they managed to reach a rocky outcrop where they waited for help. By that point, they were desperate – hungry, cold, and gasping with thirst.
Miraculously, everyone survived. After 18 hours they were picked up by the coastguard and returned to Turkey. They were kept in a detention center for more than two weeks, bringing back memories of the year Albasha spent as a political prisoner detained by the Assad regime. He emerged ill and emaciated, weighing just 42 kilos and psychologically scarred by the ordeal. After that, he knew he had to get out of Syria. “I tried to settle in Turkey and find work but there were no Arab companies at the time and I didn’t speak Turkish, it was really hard… I thought it would be easier to integrate in Europe.”
It took six months to recover from his experience at the hands of human traffickers. “I stayed at home trying to regain my mental and physical strength.” That period seems distant now. Today, Albasha is the owner of a successful business, training and employing other Syrian refugees to provide the opportunities he almost died searching for. “I just don’t want any other man or woman to try that journey, or see what I saw back then,” he says.
He studied hard and landed a job in a digital marketing company. “I had no experience in digital marketing… I just opened Google Academy and took every course.” What he lacked in experience, Albasha made up for in hard work. “I never told my boss I couldn’t do something, I would go away and read, research, and find a solution.”
By the time he left two and a half years later, Albasha was a board member with a team of 25 people. He worked till midnight most days, driven by a determination to succeed. He landed another job and decided to set up his own company, employing primarily Syrians struggling to find work. “I want to give them opportunities …help them build a better future in Turkey,” he says.
Within a year he went from one employee in a small office to six employees in a much bigger space. Six months later, his staff has doubled and his company Apollo Agency for Digital Marketing Solutions has a partnership with Google, international clients, and a sister studio for video production. He takes every opportunity to share his success with other refugees, offering internships to help young Syrians acquire the skills to compete in the job market. He also works with the Aman Foundation, which helps women launch small businesses and become self-sufficient.
His partnership with Ideas Beyond Borders followed a conversation with Founder and President Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who was inspired by Albasha’s story and what he is doing for other Syrians. “Majd is exactly the sort of person we launched the Innovation Hub to support. After overcoming major hurdles he has succeeded thanks to sheer grit and a determination to help others. He’s an inspiration.”
IBB has since given Albasha an Innovation Hub grant to cover the salaries of three Syrian employees for three months, helping him give more people the skills and experience they need to build better lives. “In Turkey, if you don’t have stable work then you’re stuck on a refugee ID and you could be sent back at any moment,” Albasha says. “You live in fear of deportation and the danger that brings.”
Many Challenges Facing Majd’s Entrepreneurial Spirit
Turkey hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the largest number of any country in the world. The vast majority are granted temporary protection status, but without a work permit, they remain vulnerable to the risk of deportation. Turkish authorities have been accused of sending thousands of Syrian refugees back to so-called ‘safe zones’ in Syria in recent years. “Either you return to areas under the control of the Assad regime and are thrown in prison, or you will be at the mercy of radical Islamists. Either way, you can be killed,” Albasha says.
As a business owner, Albasha now has a degree of protection against this threat but he still faces challenges. As a Syrian he can’t travel to meet international clients in the US, China, and Europe, nor can he receive payments from abroad.
“They don’t make it easy for us at all.” But he is determined to keep building his company and hopes to feel accepted in his adopted home one day. “I’d like to get Turkish nationality, to be settled and to feel at home, rather than living in fear of departure all the time.” And he wants the same for his fellow Syrians – to find a degree of security and somewhere to belong after all they have endured.