Jay Asad is a family man. When the Syrian uprising first began in 2011, he left behind a lucrative life in Dubai to look after his parents in Damascus, moving his wife and four kids from the United Arab Emirates back to his home country of Syria.
He thought the unrest would be over within a year. When ISIS started gaining traction towards the end of 2014, however, he knew it would go on for much longer. It was time to leave.
He went alone to avoid exposing his family to the perilous the journey to Europe. Once in the Netherlands, he went through eight different camps before finally being granted asylum. The first thing he did was apply for his wife and children to be allowed to join him. “If I’d known before how long I would have to be without my family, I might never have made this journey,” says the 53-year-old with a shake of his head. “But I’m glad I didn’t know. Now we are safe.”
Jay Asad is also a born entrepreneur. In Dubai, he worked mainly in construction, but also dabbled in manufacturing, and helped set up a sports bar and a restaurant for other companies. The reason he chose to apply for asylum in the Netherlands is because English is widely spoken, and as a US-educated MBA graduate, he figured he would be able to get to work quickly – and he did.
Although he couldn’t get an official job until he had been given a visa, he started teaching entrepreneurship to other refugees in the camps. It gave him the bug, and not long after he had arrived, he met Fleur Bakker and helped start the Refugee Company, which is now one of the biggest organizations working to get refugees into employment.
“Waiting for the government to get you a job can take years and can lead to something mediocre,” explains Asad. “Refugees are different from economic migrants. Often refugees had a whole life just a week ago, they had status and money, so they don’t just want to be a cleaner or something. That’s why I wanted to encourage people to create their own jobs, start their own businesses.”
Out of this grew the idea of Startup Kitchen, a Syrian-fusion catering company run by Asad and headquartered in the former kitchen of the Bijlmerbajes prison. Started nine months ago, Startup Kitchen focuses on three different areas: catering for groups of all sizes, delivering businesses lunches to offices, and holding weekly dinners at a large communal table.
Asad oversees the cooking of all the food alongside other refugees, serving up everything from traditional Syrian muttabel and tabbouleh to more Indian-influenced dishes from his time in the Gulf, such as mango chicken and biryani. It’s still a soft business, with Asad buying necessary equipment as and when he has the money to do so. He rents the space from Lola Lik at a reduced price and has also benefited from the built-in network the hub provides, which helps with finding clients, developing contacts and promoting his events.
“This is what we miss most as refugees,” he explains. “It’s the network, the connections. Nobody knows me here in the Netherlands, I’m just a number. That’s why Lola Lik is so great.”
He also plans to set up Baladi foods, a cheese and dairy company, plus a franchise chain of restaurants run by refugees that allows people to run their own businesses, build equity for themselves and regain their sense of self.
His aim is not just to make money to support his family, but also to help other refugees who are struggling to find their feet, something that falls perfectly in line with Lola Lik’s goal of fostering interaction between locals and new arrivals and facilitating better integration. “Because of this company I am now completely self-reliant and no longer need to get unemployment benefits,” he says. He wants this to be a model for all the refugees he employs. “I want to inspire them to not become dependent on social welfare and not to be scared to take a risk and start something themselves.”
Interested in getting involved with Startup Kitchen? Asad is looking for Dutch volunteers to help with administration and communications. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.