Author Talks: 25 million … and counting

Despite life-threatening circumstances, refugees are some of the most entrepreneurial people in the world. Andrew Leon Hanna shares why.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Joyce Yoo chats with Andrew Leon Hanna, a first-generation Egyptian American lawyer, entrepreneur, and human rights advocate, about his new book, 25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs (Cambridge University Press, May 2022). When Hanna first began chronicling the stories of three displaced Syrian women enlivening their refugee camps with local business, there were 25 million refugees in the world. With the invasion of Ukraine, that number is now higher than ever before. Hanna says it wouldn’t just be morally irresponsible to ignore refugees, it would be financially “foolish” not to invest in their endeavors. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What is your new book about?

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25 Million Sparks is about the power, equal dignity, and innovation of refugee entrepreneurs all around the world. It’s meant to highlight their enduring spirit and their entrepreneurialism in places like the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, all the way to Utica, New York, and other cities all around the world.

It focuses on three women entrepreneurs in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. They’re three Syrian women named Asma, Malak, and Yasmina. Asma is a storyteller and social entrepreneur in the camp. Malak is a young artist in the camp, and she’s also a medical student who recently graduated. Yasmina is a wedding shop and salon owner in the camp. All of them fled Syria. The book follows their stories and their amazing ability to create joy, hope, and dignity in the camp, even through immense struggles of their own and of their community.

The book then expands to explore the broader global refugee crisis and the broader phenomenon of entrepreneurship among refugees; they tend to be 1.5 to 2.0 times more entrepreneurial than native-born citizens, and they create massive economic and other value in the lives of those in communities across the world. The book ends on a note of hoping to tell a broader story of why refugees deserve to be treated and portrayed with equal dignity and invested in accordingly—for economic reasons and, most importantly, as a moral imperative.

What inspired you to write this book? And why was it so important for you personally to share these stories?

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What inspired me most is that refugees, and immigrants more broadly, are some of the most powerful, beautiful, creative, incredibly inspiring human beings on the planet. But when you look at the media, and often at politicians’ ways of portraying refugees, it tends to be one of two one-dimensional portrayals: either refugees are victims or they’re villains.

What I mean by that is either they’re portrayed as one-dimensionally pitiful, like not having their own agency and ability to create things on their own—that’s the victim narrative—or they’re portrayed through the villain narrative, which uses old tropes about refugees coming to take our jobs, commit crimes, and things of that nature. That is, by the way, extremely far from the truth.

What I wanted to do is tell a story that was more multidimensional, that lets us get to know somebody like Asma, who’s this storyteller, who’s an incredible leader in the camp, who’s lifting up the heads of kids who haven’t known much in their lives, sadly, except for words like war and bombing and shellings.

What I wanted to do is tell a story that was more multidimensional, that lets us get to know somebody like Asma, who’s this storyteller, who’s an incredible leader in the camp, who’s lifting up the heads of kids who haven’t known much in their lives, sadly, except for words like war and bomb and shelling.

Asma had the ability to create adventure in the camp, even through her own very difficult struggles, through the miscarriage of her son, through the burning of her house back in Syria, and during the early stages of the war. I wanted to tell a story that zoomed in on certain people so that we could see the brilliance, beauty, dignity, and hope in their lives, so that we could cut against some of these broader narratives that unfortunately we’re often told.

In the absence of knowing refugees, one might believe and buy into these narratives, which is why I wanted to tell this more human story that makes people realize, “This is actually something that could’ve been my life had I been born in a different situation.” Asma, Malak, Yasmina, and so many other refugees grow up with relatively normal, peaceful lives, and what ends up happening is something that they never could’ve expected. Being able to bridge that gap of othering people and saying, “These are folks just like you and me, who have families, and who are in fact some of the most inspiring people in the world,” was the first step for me.

My hope is that the relationship that readers develop—not just with Asma, Malak, and Yasmina, but with Razan in the UK or with Chip in Utica, New York—creates an understanding that this is a moral imperative of our time, during the largest global refugee crisis in history, to welcome in refugees at a much higher clip, and to invest in their brilliance and amazing ideas.

What surprised you during the interview and research process?

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The process involved a lot of getting to know refugee entrepreneurs all around the world. The Za’atari camp was a central part of that, and kudos to Save the Children Jordan, which was a partner that allowed me to enter the camp and speak with folks.

I also went to places like Utica, New York, and talked to entrepreneurs through my own work leading DreamxAmerica, Immigrant Love, and Sawa Impact Labs, three ventures that all relate to underrepresented entrepreneurs. So a lot of it was integrated into my work, but a lot of it was also separate and involved reaching out to people. My work more broadly, especially during the pandemic with DreamxAmerica, involved providing zero-interest loans in partnership with Kiva US to immigrant, refugee, and first-gen entrepreneurs across the country.

Immigrant entrepreneurs during the pandemic suffered the greatest rates of business closures. It was a very difficult time, yet nearly every loan applicant would say overwhelming, “I want to help people. I’m starting this company because I have these abilities, and I want to help my community during this difficult time, and more broadly, I want to bring people together in my community.”

What I was constantly surprised by, even having seen it in so many people’s lives—my parents are immigrants from Egypt, so I’ve seen the immigrant desire to give back to their community and how powerful that can be—is that during the most difficult times, whether it be COVID-19, whether it be a refugee camp, folks had beautiful hearts and wanted to give back to their communities. They actually put that above getting money for themselves, which shows how selfless so many refugee entrepreneurs are.

It’s a refreshing take on entrepreneurship too, because often in Silicon Valley, we celebrate a more selfish, “me, me, me” oriented entrepreneurship. What I was constantly surprised by was that even when dealing with the most difficult things one can imagine, Asma, Malak, Yasmina, and so many others around the world are pouring their hearts out to give to their communities.

Why is now a great time to share these stories, and why do you think people should hear about them?

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When I first started writing the book, 25 Million Sparks, there were about 25 million refugees in the world. When it went to press a year and a half or so ago, there were 26.4 million. Now, with the invasion of Ukraine, there are 30-plus million, so, it’s more important than ever. There are more refugees in the world than ever before in history.

About 200 million people are now displaced in general—which means forced to leave their homes more generally. Combining refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers, it’s about 200 million people, so now is a really important time to reassess. The book, in my view, first and foremost, contributes to the understanding that refugees are people who are equal to us, and this could’ve been us; refugees are fundamentally equal, powerful, beautiful, creative human beings who deserve a shot in life, who have been forced to flee through no fault of their own, and who did not deserve it.

When I first started writing the book, 25 Million Sparks, there were about 25 million refugees in the world. When it went to press a year and a half or so ago, there were 26.4 million. Now, with the invasion of Ukraine, there are 30-plus million, so, it’s more important than ever. There are more refugees in the world than ever before in history.

I try to get this message across through storytelling, primarily by bringing attention to their voices as much as possible. I try to prop up their voices and just tell the surroundings as much as I can, with me out of the way. There are a lot of very urgent things we need to deal with as a global community. As I said, there are 30-plus million refugees, 200 million displaced, but less than 1 percent—which is quite a shocking figure—of refugees around the world are permanently resettled each year. Part of the reason is that only 30 or 40 countries even have a resettlement program. For the ones that do, it’s insufficient.

You have camps that are living on and on. You have people in transitory environments in host cities, where they’re not permitted to live permanently. It’s a total failure of the global system, and until we start seeing refugees for what they are—which is incredible economic assets to communities, but most importantly, equal human beings who we have a moral imperative to protect—we’re not going to solve these issues.

My hope is that the message coming from this book—from individuals, to companies, to national governments—is that we push and say, “Hey, this is not a world that we believe is proper. We do not believe it’s appropriate to have people living in refugee camps for decades. We don’t believe it’s appropriate to have the ability to bring in people, but to say, ‘No. We don’t prefer to because of their race or their religion or other stereotypes.’”

In fact, not only is it not okay, but also it’s economically foolish. The US government did a study over a ten-year span recently that basically said refugees contribute about $63 billion in fiscal surplus to the US government. From an economic point of view, from a moral point of view, and really just from a cultural spirit and joy point of view, we’re missing out on quite a bit. Now is a better time than ever to reassess and say, “What are we doing to solve these issues?”

If the average person picks up this book, what would you like for them to learn and understand?

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The main thing I want folks to see is that they can’t confuse the ugliness of the situation with the beauty of the people. What I mean by that is the system is broken. There are 30 million refugees and, as I said, less than 1 percent are formally resettled anually.

Between war, violence, and everything else, it’s easy to see that and to mistakenly conflate that with the people. But really, amidst this disaster, war, fighting, violence, and all that’s occurring in places where people are having to flee are the most beautiful, incredible powerful, creative people that you could imagine, and quite resilient.

I hope people see this through the lens of entrepreneurship, because it’s an interesting angle to understand people’s passions, and it’s often a source of economic mobility for immigrants and refugees because of their unique entrepreneurial abilities. My hope is that people see that side of refugees—that they’re able to create new lives of their own.

I hope this leads to individual actions, whether that be donating or serving at a local immigrant welcoming center or refugee resettlement center, many of which were decimated over the last few years in the US. They’re in desperate need of support, as they support immigrants on the front lines who are just arriving, help them start businesses, and help them with language training and housing. Individual action could also be reaching out more personally to refugees in your community, or at work by helping to make sure that your employer is making an effort to ensure that refugees are both welcomed into the application process and also treated with the appropriate respect and fairness.

If there’s one thing, my hope is that people will sit with the stories of Asma, Yasmina, and Malak. One of the big takeaways I hope for is that this book inspires and paints refugees in a positive light. There’s also a bit of a sadness when the book talks about how the majority of Americans at one point did not want to welcome Syrian refugees or didn’t want to welcome them unless they were Christian.

Muslims suffered just as much and deserved grace and welcoming just as much. Malak told me, “We didn’t choose this,” so it’s quite sad to see that people would discriminate against refugees and not want to welcome them when it was no choice of their own. My hope is that this can break that [cycle] a bit and that people will be called to act, whether it be advocacy at a higher level or in the local community.

What can business leaders learn from the stories of these three women?

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A lot of the most celebrated entrepreneurs in Fortune, Forbes, other magazines, and here in the Bay Area, tend to be celebrated for their risk taking and their resilience. I would counter: nothing against those who speak at business schools, but I would say we have a lot to learn from some of the people whose stories we’ll never hear. A lot of them are these refugee entrepreneurs, some of whom you’ll read about in the book.

What we have to learn is a few things. There’s a reason that refugees, and immigrants more broadly, are so much more entrepreneurial. Refugees have an ability to have a level of resilience that is unparalleled. For example, Yasmina, having dealt with all that she dealt with in fleeing Syria—having to make phone calls back to her town, wondering if her house is still upright and her family still okay—built a resilience that primes you and prepares you to do well when it comes to business because you’re able to be a very resilient person in life.

The second element to learn is a level of commitment. A lot of entrepreneurs we celebrate—and even with me, entrepreneurially—have a backup plan. Maybe you’re not actively thinking about it, but you know that if things don’t go well, you have something else you can do; you won’t be in dire straits.

Yasmina, however, sold all of her wedding jewelry, which were the only economically valuable things she owned, and some of the most personally valuable and sentimental things she owned. She sold them all early in her days in the camp in order to loan out dresses and start her wedding dress and salon company. The level of commitment there is immense. They’re not looking at a backup option because they don’t have it. They have to succeed in order to support their family. That’s often the case for refugee entrepreneurs, and it was with Yasmina.

Another element is the importance of cross-cultural experience and tapping into those. Different articles, reviews, and research papers have shown that the more you tap into your cross-cultural experiences, the more innovative and successful businesses are. The ability to not follow the normal conventions studied in business school or art school but come up with your own that infuse your own cultural experience and understanding of other markets and backgrounds is also a huge value add that I think companies could learn from and infuse more of. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to have a diverse workforce.

There are so many more angles or elements, and the last one I’d say is empathy. A lot of refugees have an intense desire to create a home in the new adoptive or temporary home they’re in. They have a great deal of empathy, both for fellow refugees who are dealing with the same thing—that’s how Asma was so powerful as a storyteller and social entrepreneur in the camp, and still is—but also an empathy for others, a wanting to create a home for other people in the community, and a wanting to integrate somehow.

After Hurricane Harvey, the Afghan Cultural Center in Houston created so much hope for people by helping the firemen and women provide food, support, and shelter to people in need. There’s a level of empathy that refugees have that makes them very strong entrepreneurs that we could all learn from.

After Hurricane Harvey, the Afghan Cultural Center in Houston created so much hope for people by helping the firemen and women provide food, support, and shelter to people in need. There’s a level of empathy that refugees have that makes them very strong entrepreneurs that we could all learn from.

Having completed this book, what gives you hope now?

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The main thing that gives me hope is people like Asma, Malak, and Yasmina, and the resilience, spirit, and hearts that they have. I think the only thing that we have to do as a global community and as local communities is A: welcome refugees in and live up to the commitment post-World War II that we would provide a home for those who don’t have one; and then B: provide them with investment and support.

Even a modicum more will make a huge difference because what refugees and immigrants, more broadly, are able to do with just a little bit of capital, encouragement, and support will pay dividends in their families’ lives and in the lives of so many others.

Millions of people are employed because of refugees starting their own ventures. My hope is in them. My optimism is that we will as a global community get out of the way and provide them the support and encouragement that they deserve. I think it starts with recognizing their incredible entrepreneurial abilities and, even more so, their equal humanity. That’s my hope for the book.

The refugee camp still is totally inadequate, despite the great work of aid workers, many of whom are refugees. It’s still not an adequate place in terms of so many things like education and healthcare. Despite that, people like Asma, Malak, and Yasmina have created an amazing source of hope, and an amazing community where there are a couple of streets with shops all across them.

There’s millions and millions in revenue per month generated by these businesses. This isn’t an adequate place to live, and these folks deserve more, but because of refugee entrepreneurs and the support of aid workers—and the Jordanian government, in the case of Za’atari and the UNHCR—and largely because of the entrepreneurs themselves and the refugees themselves, Za’atari has become a more livable place, a more lively place, and a place that they actually take quite a bit of pride in.

Malak told me, “This is a city like anyplace else. When I go to college in Amman, I represent it. When I do radio appearances, I represent it.”

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Andrew Leon Hanna on 25 million … and counting

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