Refugee Afghan entrepreneurs building successful businesses in Turkey


When Afghan businessman Haji Yakup Burhan fled the violence of his home country 30 years ago, he brought with him his family — and all his money.

He headed to Saudi Arabia, where he opened a restaurant but, as refugees, his children had difficulty getting into a school. Then he moved to the United Arab Emirates, but Dubai’s costs seemed impossible.

So, two years ago, he moved to Turkey and opened a restaurant in Istanbul’s Esenyurt neighborhood, taking advantage of the country’s relatively open business environment for refugees.

“I have 15 people working for me in this restaurant. They are Afghans, Iranians and Turks.

“I have invested about $120,000 in this restaurant so far,” Burhan, 52, said at his Afghan kebab establishment.

“Over 60 percent of our customers are Afghans living here. The rest are Arabs, Iranians and Turks,” he added.

Afghan refugee entrepreneurs appear to be increasingly successful in Turkey, where they bring to the local economy not only their savings but sought-after know-how, whether in restaurants, commerce or skilled crafts and specialities.

In turn, Turkey offers refugees simplified administrative procedures for setting up a new business.

Turkey hosts nearly 4 million refugees, with Syrians making up the largest group, but Afghans number more than 145,000, according to Amnesty International figures released last year.

Some people in Turkey view refugees as a burden, but a different picture emerges in Burhan’s bustling Istanbul suburb, where refugees like him have made significant investments in the local economy.

Inside Burhan’s restaurant, a TV blares Afghan channels showing Turkish soap operas over the hum of customers eating the popular Afghan dish “qabeli palaw” — rice with lamb meat and mixed with caramelized carrots, raisins and almond slivers.

“We are the only Afghan restaurant in this neighborhood for now,” he said, sitting cross-legged on a mattress and sipping green tea.

To attract more investment at a time when the Turkish economy was struggling last year, the government in September slashed from $1 million to $250,000 the threshold at which Turkish citizenship is offered to foreigners buying property.

It sparked an 82 percent increase in foreigners buying real estate in the first quarter of this year, the Turkish Statistical Institute said.

Afghans likely account for a small percentage of this hike — precise figures are unavailable — but not all those fleeing the war-ravaged country are destitute.

Mehmet Yasin Hamidi, an Afghan who runs the Royalist real estate agency in Beylikduzu, on Istanbul’s outskirts, said that their sales of homes had doubled this year compared to the same period last year.

“People cannot protect their lives and money in Afghanistan,” Hamidi, who has lots of Afghan nationals among his clients, said.

“If you have money, you or your children could get kidnapped. The businessmen are threatened there. That is why they bring their money here.”

Construction of new housing has exploded in Beylikduzu in recent years to meet a growing demand for real estate investment by foreigners.

The Association of Housing Developers and Investors says that foreigners bought $4.6 billion worth of Turkish property in 2018 and the figure is expected to jump to $10 billion this year.

Many refugees arriving in Turkey bring with them diverse skills and experience that allow them to make a contribution to the country’s workforce.

Hadi Ekhlas, an engraver from Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic group, left the war-torn nation eight years ago. He first went to neighboring Pakistan to sell his skills.

He then moved to Turkey, where he now engraves Islamic and Ottoman scripts on gemstone rings and semi-precious stones — a skill he learned from his grandfather — in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest covered markets.

“In the past, some Turkish traders would import stones with engravings from other countries, but now I am making them here and taking orders,” Ekhlas said.

Ekhlas has a Turkish partner, who helps him with marketing, and runs one of the 42 Afghan shops in the Grand Bazaar.

“I plan to expand my business in the near future. I’d also like to teach my skills to other Turks here,” he said.

In another corner of the Grand Bazaar, Khalil Nuri, an expert Afghan jeweler, sells rings, necklaces, pendants — just about anything that can be found in Kabul’s many curiosity shops.

“I am a jeweler and an expert in handicrafts and I wanted to continue my profession here,” said Nuri, who fled Afghanistan and has been doing business for the past 12 years in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, Burhan said that he hopes his business will continue to do well “because there are a lot of Afghans living here.”

“There are also people who want to give the taste of Afghan cuisine a try.”

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