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Finland based NGO Startup Refugees is offering asylum seekers the support necessary to launch their startups

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Two Finnish TV personalities are on a mission to bring the best out of the refugees reaching their shores for both the benefit of the refugees and the Finnish society.

Frustrated with the negative image portrayed in the media due to the over 32,000 refugees seeking asylum in Finland last year up from 3,600 in 2014, the TV celebrities Riku Rantala and Tunna Milonoff reached out to their network to join them to see what can be done to support refugees coming to their country.

When asylum seekers reach Finland, they must go register at a reception center – with over 130 established to date and scattered around the country. These centers are run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross and provide shelter as well as basic needs. With the increase in refugees in the past year mostly coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the process has slowed down leading to frustration and exasperation amongst refugees.

According to the Finnish law, an asylum seeker with a valid travel document which allows the crossing of the border, is entitled to work after three months of the submittal of the asylum application. Without such a document, he or she is entitled to work after six months.  Rantala and Milonoff saw an opportunity to put this law to good use and secure employment for refugees. That’s how they decided to set up Startup Refugees, a not-for-profit organization that aims to map the skills and motivation of asylum seekers in order to connect them with a network of mentors and organizations that can assist in providing education and business opportunities.

Currently working with eight reception centers in six municipalities, the NGO has 20 reception centers in the queue waiting for their services.

With funding and support from a network of 350 parties including from large corporates such as Supercell and DNA as well as small corporates, startups, NGOs, the Finnish immigration office and the ministry of interior that runs the reception centers, Startup Refugees is able to offer refugees a vast array of education, mentorship and business opportunities. Most parties in the network offer their time and skills and some also sponsor business ideas by donating equipment such as computers and barber kits.

Brain Gain

“We wanted to think about new people coming to Finland as brain gain and what they want to do with their skills”, says Camilla Nurmi, project coordinator at Startup Refugees. “They have many skills; some have an entrepreneurship background, they have skills to run [the reception centers] better”.

With a database of services that their network of parties can offer, the NGO kicked off six months ago by launching an online survey for refugees with a goal to understand their skills and motivations. The survey collected responses from around 1,000 asylum seekers to date and revealed that 80 percent of asylum seekers are interested in starting companies. The replies gathered are shared with the managers of the reception centers in order to assess how to empower refugees to start their own micro businesses.

To date, the company has supported the launch of 10 micro businesses launched by refugees.

“In one reception center, asylum seekers launched a marketing research company for Finnish companies in Arabic speaking countries; they needed computers and we provided it for them. They have customers – Finnish companies that want to export their services to arabic speaking countries” says Nurmi. “One team started their own school inside the reception center”.

Going forward

As a next phase, Startup Refugees aims on helping launch micro businesses beyond the reception centers. In partnership with several organizations, the NGO hosted a business ideation weekend to support asylum seekers in finding team members and developing business ideas. The event led to the launch of  14 business which the NGO is currently supporting. For September of this year, they plan on hosting a week-long event to assist refugees launch their own startups with a focus on the fields of hospitality, tech and marketing, media and art.

In the city of Kauhava, a model for the efficient management of a reception center by asylum seekers was adopted with 350 inhabitants launching their own barbershop, laundry, kindergarten, school, tailor, bakery, café and media team and even parliament.

Startup Refugees is currently working on an educational video and open source manual that will be ready in June.  With guidelines for reception centers on how to involve and empower refugees in the running of their centers, the NGO aspires for these guidelines to incite other reception centers across Europe to bring out the best in refugees reaching their shores.

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