When COVID-19 hit imports, Osama Al Assaf immediately ‘pivoted’ his business from sports retail to the craft sector, supplying UK-made haberdashery products to people isolating at home.
As well as switching markets, the refugee entrepreneur also volunteered for the NHS during the lockdown, as he wanted to ‘pay back’ the UK for how he had been welcomed.
Mr Al Assaf had arrived in the UK with next to nothing in 2016 after fleeing war-torn Syria, and spent time on Aston Business School’s RWAD programme, which specialises in helping refugee entrepreneurs.
He talked about his experiences in the latest episode of a podcast series called ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.
Dr Muhammad Al Mahameed, an accounting lecturer at Aston Business School who set up the RWAD programme, was also interviewed for the podcast. He explained that refugee entrepreneurs’ harsh experiences meant they were often quick to adapt to new crises.
Mr Al Assaf said he had faced “countless challenges” after making the tough journey from Syria to the UK.
He said: “Emotionally, it was hard for me to comprehend I had lost everything. I had to adapt to a completely new system and environment, especially without support from extended family members or friends.”
Mr Al Assaf joined Dr Al Mahameed’s RWAD (which stands for ‘pioneers’ in Arabic) programme and this gave him the knowledge of the UK business sector that he needed to start the sports retailer Tradot in 2018.
He soon established a 10,000-strong customer base, but when COVID-19 struck his business was soon critically short of imported stock, faced increased shipping costs and had to furlough two employees.
Mr Al Assaf said: “After a few weeks of frustration, I started thinking about local suppliers and changed from a sports niche to the craft sector and opened a new business called Sewing Kits.
“I think I have a tough background to deal with this situation and it was a positive experience against the COVID-19 crisis.”
As the economy begins to emerge from lockdown, he said he hoped that both his new craft business and his original sports retailer would now begin to thrive.
Talking about how he also became an NHS Volunteer to help vulnerable people during the crisis, Mr Al Assaf added: “This is the time to give something back to the community that has helped me a lot with my own life.”
Dr Al Mahameed, himself a former refugee, started RWAD with the aim of refining the business skills of refugees arriving in the UK from Syria.
He said: “What RWAD does is focus on what exactly needs to be refined and what needs to be retooled. It’s all based on adaptability.
“It might be surprising to someone who isn’t familiar with refugee entrepreneurship, but this business had already been somewhere in the world and came 3,000 miles to the UK, adapted to the UK, and functioned.
“I would argue that refugee businesses were more likely to adapt faster than other businesses [after COVID-19], and that’s what we saw with Osama.
“He was very quick to react, so that adaptability is maybe something that a refugee earned and obtained through that journey.”
Dr Al Mahameed added that despite austerity measures, the UK was still “one of the best countries in the world” for refugees considering opening businesses in the UK.
▪ Episode 5 of ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’ can be found at https://www2.aston.ac.uk/aston-business-school/podcast.
About Aston University
Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long-established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.
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