Agha: ‘I didn’t have CV’: building my business as refugee

Orient Net - Guardian 2018-09-16 10:10:00

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Moh Agha had a lot to take in when he first arrived in the UK with his young family in November 2013. “It’s not easy moving to a new country with a wife and two small children,” he says. “Everything was unfamiliar. We had no friends or family, it was very cold and people spoke very fast and with a strong accent.”

Back in Damascus, before the war broke out, Agha had built up a successful importing business. He travelled regularly between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Lebanon for work. “Our turnover was around $25m a year,” he says. “People think the war only affected people physically, but because we couldn’t renew our passports or get visas, my business couldn’t operate.”

After fleeing Syria for Saudi Arabia, the family arrived in the UK. “We moved from London to Bristol, then settled in Wolverhampton,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for me to go to the jobcentre, because I didn’t have a CV; I’d always owned my own business. I wanted to open a shop, but it was very expensive because of council tax and business rates. I also found it hard to leave my wife Ranim and my daughters Yara and Amal (now 11 and six) at home alone, because they didn’t speak English. So when I discovered ebay and selling things from home, I realised it could be the solution.”

Around this time, by chance, Agha attended a very British institution: the car boot sale. “I met a lady who was trying to sell old books – she had maybe 700 or 800 of them,” he recalls. “She didn’t want to take them home at the end of the day so she was giving them away for free. I took them back to my garage, sorted them out and listed 20 for sale. The next day all of the books were sold. I then listed the rest and spent the next six months looking around for more. The profit was small, but I was happy to be building a store and getting good feedback.”

As Agha and his family began to build up a network of fellow Syrians between Manchester, London and Bristol, he realised that many in his community were struggling to find traditional items they missed from home. “I went to a big wholesaler in London and bought some Syrian kitchenware and house decorations and listed them,” he says. “I made a profit straight away and I realised that there was a real demand there, so I started to import more items from Egypt and Lebanon.”

But building up an online store from scratch wasn’t without its challenges. “I’d watch videos explaining how to sell online, but I couldn’t always understand them because they were in English or out of date,” he says. “I realised many people in my community needed these items, but didn’t know about ebay or were not sure how to use it. So I started making videos in Arabic, advertising my items and explaining how to make an ebay account and use PayPal.”

Agha’s store, Almaskiya, now stocks 3,500 different items – from prayer mats to copper falafel makers – and he’s not just selling to the Syrian community anymore. “There’s a mould to make sweets that we use every Eid,” he says. “I made a 20-second video explaining how to use it, and now people from Europe are buying it at Christmas and Easter. We have orders for it every day now, actually. And there’s a metal straw that we use to drink tea in the Middle East. The idea came to me that people who drink coffee might want to use it to keep their teeth white. That’s become one of our bestsellers.”

The business is growing – “we make a good profit in high season and we cover our costs the rest of the time” – but Agha hasn’t stopped there. “After I made the videos explaining ebay, a lot of people asked me how they could start selling too,” he says. Agha now runs free workshops around the UK for people interested in becoming ebay sellers. “Even though I know these people could become my competitors, I believe that everyone has their own strategy and their own way of doing things – and there’s room for millions of sellers. When I hear people thank me or say: ‘I’m going to pray for you’, or I see them start businesses with a good turnover, I feel proud,” he says. “It’s the best part of my day.”

By Kate Wills     

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