March marked eight years since the devastating Syrian civil war began in 2011 — a war sparked by a group of young boys, a paint can, and a politically charged statement.
While the infrastructure and landscape have been largely decimated, entrepreneurs are playing a vital role in bringing the country back to life.
In 2011, the successful uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt inspired 15 Syrian boys in Deraa to paint graffiti slogans on walls, copying what they had seen on the news had happened in Cairo and Tunis. The slogans read, “The people want to topple the regime!” The young Syrian boys, all between the ages of 10 and 15, were arrested, detained, and brutally tortured by the local Political Security branch.
The arrests and torture of the children sparked country-wide protests. Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. This violent crackdown catalyzed the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a group of military defectors aiming to overthrow the government, thus plunging Syria into a bloody civil war.
Since 2011, more than 465,000 Syrians have been killed and over a million have been injured during the conflict. Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and beyond and many more are displaced within the country itself, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Syria’s economy is also a victim of the ongoing civil war. Between 2011 and 2015, the country experienced heavy economic losses. The biggest loss to the Syrian GDP was internal trade, which lost around $1.9 billion and accounted for 23.2 per cent of the total GDP loss, according to data from the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
The closure of thousands of businesses in Syria in 2011 led also to the loss of 2.1 million actual and potential jobs between 2010 and 2015, according to a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. As a result, the overall unemployment rate in Syria has rocketed to 52.9%. Among youth, the unemployment rate is even higher at 78%.
Despite these grim realities, there is still hope thanks to a new generation of young Syrians, who are fighting to bring new hope and economic opportunities to Syria through entrepreneurship and innovation.
“More than 150 startups were created in Syria last year—from BitCode, a platform to teach youth how to code in Arabic, to Clerk, an AI system for improving the recruitment process,” according to a blog by Ahmad Sufian Bayram, a Syrian social entrepreneur, activist, and the Regional Manager of Techstars in the Middle East and Africa.
Statistics in the 2017 report Entrepreneurship in Conflict Zones: Insights on the Startups in Syria published by Bayram shows that 72% of the startups surveyed were based in Damascus and 73% were in the idea stage. The report also highlighted that entrepreneurship is a male-dominated field in Syria, as 77.6% of startup founders surveyed were men, and only 22.4% were women.
However, the entrepreneurial spirit is not new in Syria. Even before 2011, efforts were made to nurture the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. This included the establishment of the Syrian Investment Agency in 2007, the issuance of the Competition and Antitrust Law in 2008, and the establishment of the Syrian Market Stocks in 2009. The Syrian Trust for Development and the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs’ Association were also established to promote economic and social growth in the country.
However, after the civil war began in 2011, the momentum in Syria’s entrepreneurial community that had begun in the early 2000s slowed. The number of organizations and communities supporting entrepreneurship in Syria dropped from around 18 between 2006 and 2010, to around 8 between 2011 and 2013.
In contrast, since 2013, Syria has seen a jump in the number of these supporting mechanisms. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of organizations and communities supporting entrepreneurship increased to around 28.
One initiative in the spotlight recently is Jusoor. This US-based NGO was established by Syrian expatriates to “support[ ] the country’s development and helping Syrian youth realize their potential through programs in the fields of education, career development, and global community engagement.” The NGO also seeks to promote Syria’s development by “drawing on the vast talents and experience of [its] global members to overcome the challenges the country faces,” according to the Jusoor website.
In 2016, Jusoor hosted three entrepreneurship bootcamps, in which 38 teams participated and a total of $48,000 was awarded in cash prizes. The bootcamps, two in Beirut and one in Berlin, were “tailored to the needs of youth in conflict areas.” The organization received more than 200 applications from Syrian startups from across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and North America. The biggest number of applicants, over 65%, came from within Syria itself, according to the Jusoor 2016 Annual report.
Although support for entrepreneurship in Syria has experienced a revival in the past five years, the country’s fragile ecosystem still faces many obstacles. In his report on the Syrian startup ecosystem, Bayram highlighted 10 main challenges that the ecosystem still faces including: insecurity and political instability; scarcity of financial support; limited access to markets; collapsing infrastructure; sanctions and payment restrictions; increasing economic burdens; dwindling human capital; diminishing market sizes; an unfriendly regulatory environment; and a dysfunctional education system for entrepreneurship.
Despite these formidable challenges, young Syrian entrepreneurs continue to persevere. When asked about the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship in the country, 52.2% of the respondents in Bayram’s 2014 survey believed that entrepreneurship was vital to overcoming the difficulties they faced to secure a reliable income. Just one year later, in 2015, this number went up to 65.8%.
While the current war has wreaked untold havoc on Syria, the Middle Eastern country’s youth and diaspora remain committed to re-building their country’s social and economic institutions in the hope that they can return home one day. Only time will tell if their innovative spirit and efforts can transform this dream into a reality.