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The Syrian refugee helping Welsh businesses thrive online

Naser Sakka (MSc 2019) is a resilient family man who arrived in the UK in 2015 as a refugee from war-torn Syria. He fell in love with Wales and, after completing a course created for refugees at Cardiff University, went on to gain his masters and started a social enterprise which has helped local businesses, particularly during the pandemic.

It wasn’t Naser Sakka’s choice to leave Syria. He had a nice life in his home country, but since the war began, his life as he knew it was destroyed. His family rebuilt their life in Wales and Naser says it was the help of the people around him that got them through.

“We were sent to different areas in the UK when we arrived as refugees, and it was my fate to end up in Wales. It turned out to be a lovely fate!”

Naser found himself in Cardiff, living with a Welsh family for six months and waiting for his wife and children to join him. 

“I was sent to Cardiff and it was really beautiful. It’s close to the sea and I loved exploring the castles and learning about the history. After a few weeks I met some people, talked to them, and discovered that this is a diverse city. People are kind and welcoming. I’m still in touch with the family I lived with when I arrived, and we visit each other when we can.”

Naser felt the need to be proactive and get involved with the community as much as he could.

“I volunteered with two organisations, the Welsh Refugee Council and the Rotary Club. The Refugee Council have lots of courses, some of which are run in collaboration with Cardiff University. I’ve attended some of these and that’s how I discovered the course at Cardiff University – Realising Your Business Potential.”

Realising Your Business Potential was a course launched in 2016 in collaboration with the Welsh Refugee Council and Enactus students, taught by Professor Tim Edwards. It is taught at pre-university level and aims to create a space for refugees to integrate and provide them with opportunities. Participants are partnered up with Enactus students, teams of entrepreneurial students who create and contribute to community projects to empower those in need, and they work together on a business pitch.

Tim said: “It’s a really nice environment to try and develop understanding. For the students, they begin to understand the experience of refugees, and the refugees work with the students in an energised environment. They figure out how to build a network.”  

“Naser has been incredibly entrepreneurial, he did really well on the module and was really engaged. Cardiff Business School’s Professor Martin Kitchener (PhD 1996), saw this and decided to sponsor Naser for his master’s,” explains Tim.

“I did the course at Cardiff University and I loved it,” said Naser. “I met Enactus students and took part in some amazing projects with them. I felt so happy to work with them and I knew I would love to continue and do a business degree.”

In order to gain his master’s, Naser also completed a Pathway with Continuing and Professional Education which enabled him to apply for a postgraduate degree at Cardiff Business School.

“When you’re a new arrival it’s not easy. You don’t have confidence because you don’t know where you can do business or how to do certain things. These courses give you confidence to start a business, apply for jobs or further study.”

It was while he was studying for his master’s that Naser came up with a brilliant business idea, one that could help local businesses thrive.

“When I was doing my MA, we would do activities and brainstorming, and in the middle of the course I got this idea. I saw how people worked and met many people who didn’t leverage technology in the best way. I thought it might be helpful for them to have something like Townmart.”

“The idea behind Townmart is to give local businesses an opportunity to have an online presence, such as a website, online store, or booking system. We help set these things up. It’s very affordable and the businesses don’t pay to set up their account or their website, as we give them one year for free.”

During the pandemic, Naser saw people struggle to keep their businesses because they didn’t have an online presence, and started working with businesses in Penarth to help them set one up.

“I love to contribute to the community because I really appreciate the support I’ve received here, especially when we lost our lives in Syria. We had to rebuild, and without people’s support I wouldn’t be at this stage. Lots of the courses have been free and my MA was covered mostly by a grant. I used to volunteer full time as a way to give something back!”

Naser’s vision for Townmart is to ultimately offer their services to every local business in the UK.

“I’m in contact with the Refugee Council and many other organisations to push this forward and there are lots of people who need this support, but they don’t know about us yet!”

Naser has learned a lot from this experience and has kept in contact with Professor Tim Edwards and made other connections throughout.

“My advice to others arriving in the UK is to be proactive. Go to an organisation like the Refugee Council and take part in what’s happening. There are many organisations that will help with study. Don’t be shy, and don’t wait. When people arrive, they feel a bit scared, and they worry the community won’t accept them. My advice is to let the people know you. When they know you and you become a familiar face, they are really nice people. This is what I’ve done. I volunteered and did some amazing work with these organisations.”

Naser’s social enterprise, Townmart, is now up and running. Professor Tim Edwards is hoping to restart the course at Cardiff University, offering the opportunity not only to the refugee community but also the homeless community, when restrictions have eased.