Episode 557: Doing Business Like A Refugee : Planet Money Today on the show: Why most countries in the developing world won't let refugees work. And why Uganda is trying something different.
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Episode 557: Doing Business Like A Refugee

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Episode 557: Doing Business Like A Refugee

Episode 557: Doing Business Like A Refugee

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Hey, PLANET MONEY listeners. Thanks for listening to the show. NPR has lots of other great podcasts you might want to check out, including the live debate show, Intelligence Squared U.S. You can find it on iTunes under podcasts.


SMITH: One of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Africa is called Nakivale. It's a sprawling camp in western Uganda. Think mostly real houses instead of plastic tents.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: And Nakivale is where I met Mohammed Osman Ali. He's a thin Somali guy of around 32 in a blue UCLA sweatshirt. When I met him, he was crouched over this old, old diesel generator. This generator was used when he bought it, and it broke almost immediately. And then over time, here in the refugee camp, Ali scraped up the money for parts, and he taught himself to fix it.

MOHAMMED OSMAN ALI: Seven months, I could not start.

WARNER: Seven months?

ALI: Seven months.


WARNER: Now it's good.

ALI: Now it's good (laughter).

WARNER: Because of your handiwork.

ALI: Yeah, yeah.

WARNER: So the reason Ali was so determined to fix this whole generator was to provide power to a machine that he says has insured his mental and economic survival during these last five years as a refugee. And that life-saving machine is a Sony PlayStation.


WARNER: We follow the thick cable leading from the generator into this dark hut with stone floors and stone walls, and there is Ali's PlayStation - basically, a thin, silver box, completely chipped. The DVD is kind of broken off, and the wires are hanging out in one place. But Ali has jiggered this thing to start with a USB flash drive, which he sticks in and, miraculously, on the old television he's repurposed as a monitor, comes up "FIFA World Soccer."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So away we go.

WARNER: All right. So now I got to play my side, right?

I start playing the game against Ali, and he immediately scores.


ALI: Sorry (laughter).

WARNER: But look, this is Ali's business - not beating me soundly at "FIFA Soccer," but renting out time on this PlayStation. In fact, Ali runs a video arcade for other refugees and charges them in 10-minute chunks.

ALI: Five hundred.

WARNER: Five hundred for 10...

ALI: Five hundred shilling (laughter).

WARNER: All right. So 500 shillings - about 20 cents. That's two cents a minute. It adds up.

SMITH: And this may seem like your routine story of a scrappy immigrant building a small business, but it is not routine because Ali is technically not an immigrant. He is a refugee. And outside of Uganda, in most other parts of the world, he would not be able to start this business. He wouldn't even be able to work or push a broom. In most parts of the world, it is illegal to give a refugee a job.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith, and we are pleased to welcome back Gregory Warner, NPR's East Africa correspondent. Hey, Greg.

WARNER: Hey, Robert. Today on the show - why most countries in the developing world won't let their refugees work and why Uganda, of all places, is trying something different.


WARNER: Well, Robert, to understand why Uganda is such an outlier, let's just take a brief trip to a different place, a place facing what could be the biggest refugee crisis in the world right now. I'm sure listeners are aware of the Syrian War. I made a crackly cellphone call to Turkey to talk to a Syrian refugee there. His name is Ahmed (ph).

AHMED AL-OWAIS: My name is Ahmed al-Owais (ph).

WARNER: Unlike the Somali video game guy we heard from up top, Ahmed has lots of advantages. He's educated. He was a lawyer in Syria. He's got money. He speaks passable English, and he's worked all his life.

AL-OWAIS: I like life. I like work. I like joke. I am Ahmed (laughter).

WARNER: When the bombs started to fall in his hometown in Syria, Ahmed fled with his wife and his three young kids. The moment that he crossed the border, Ahmed got a new label - refugee. And though he immediately sought work - you know, he was - he was asking for jobs translating documents, typing, stacking boxes - everyone said, no, you don't get it. Even sweeping floors, even driving a cab is illegal for refugees. And the police could actually slap a fine on you for more money than you possibly have.

AL-OWAIS: The Turkish law is (unintelligible) yes, you cannot work, yes. There's a fine, nearly $5,000.

WARNER: A fine of nearly $5,000. So right now, Ahmed has no job, no money and, at this point, no choice.

AL-OWAIS: When this month is finished, I go back to Syria.

WARNER: He's going back home with his kids to the war zone.

SMITH: We hear stories like this from a lot of countries. They allow refugees to come in, but they don't want the refugees taking jobs from their citizens. So governments just say, yeah, you can stay, but you can't work. Now, Uganda, where Ali runs his video arcade, Uganda used to be the same way. It is also a poor country. It also doesn't have enough jobs to go around. But the reason Uganda changed is that it got itself into this weird bind. Back in the late 1990s, there were all these refugees coming in from nearby Sudan, and high-level Ugandan officials were accused of stealing U.N. aid money, aid money meant for the refugees. So Uganda got in trouble, and it really, really needed to get back into the good graces of the U.N..

WARNER: And what's more is the United Nations was just tired of spending so much money on refugees in Uganda. So it asked Uganda to try an experiment. Refugees from now on would be allowed to take a job or start a business without being hassled or shut down. And Uganda and the U.N. called this the Self-Reliance Strategy.

SMITH: And today, the Self-Reliance Strategy, well, it looks a lot like a guy in a hut with a Playstation.

WARNER: Which is Mohammed Osman Ali. Ali came over the border five years ago in the middle of the night in the back of a truck. This guy was fleeing a war that killed his parents, killed his sister, and he had nothing. He had no money, no English. Now, with the success of his first beat-up box, he bought five more PlayStations, five more old TVs to serve as computer monitors. And each night, he fires up the generator. Each night, people come. Ali is studying English, but he's still learning, so we invited Ali's older neighbor, Osman Faiz (ph) over to translate.

You can sit over there if you want.

And through this translator, Ali told me that it is not easy running a video arcade in a refugee camp. For one thing - and this is a bizarre problem - his game controllers kept breaking, almost as quick as he could buy them. And Ali finally realized the problem. It was his client's thumbs because those thumbs belonged to refugees who just like him have witnessed war. They've seen family members killed, and they were unloading their stress on his game controllers, basically smashing them, which Ali himself totally understood because it's exactly why he uses video games, to de-stress.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

OSMAN FAIZ: (Unintelligible) Mentally it makes you forget most of your problems. It entertains. You feel I'm a human being also. You don't dwell (unintelligible) refugee problems. We have problems, you know? So when you are playing this game 30 minutes, you refresh. That's what I like about the games.

WARNER: So Mohammed solved the problem just like he did with the diesel generator. He learned to repair game controllers with the wreckage of other ones. And in front of me on the stone floor, he dumps out this giant bag of spare parts.

WARNER: Oh, my God. What is this stuff?

O FAIZ: (Foreign language spoken).

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

O FAIZ: I have some new and I have some old. And I always gather anything that come across me that is electronic. anything. I don't...

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: You don't throw it away ever.

O FAIZ: (Foreign language spoken) Yes. I don't throw it away.

WARNER: Now, you might have heard a woman laughing there in the background. That was Ali's wife listening from the doorway, and she's doing this rolling thing with her shoulders. It looks to me like the Somali equivalent of rolling one's eyes. Clearly, she's just too familiar with this description of her husband, the packrat, the inveterate recycler. But Ali doesn't care. He's still showing me the spare parts.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

O FAIZ: It gets dismantled like this one is - yeah, have used the super glue (unintelligible).

WARNER: Looking at this huge pile of, well, seemingly mostly junk, you can see the bigger economic story that refugees are today writing in Uganda. And it's not just the story of how this one guy, Ali, is supporting his family with his video game arcade. It's what the arcade and all these refugee businesses are doing for Uganda.

SMITH: Yeah, this is the easy thing to forget. But all of those little cogs and plastic bits and the gas for the generator, the new controllers, even the super glue that he apparently has to use a lot of, I mean, Ali has to buy those from somewhere. And he buys them from Ugandan businesses. And so even though this whole experiment may have come about because Uganda wanted to make the United Nations happy or because the United Nations wanted to save money, it right away actually started to benefit Uganda's economy because the better Ali's business does, the better in some small way Uganda does.

WARNER: And with the profits that he's making from this arcade, he invests in another venture. He's buying wholesale goods like nails and paint and little girls' dresses and he sells them. His wife actually runs the store. The two of them have four kids. And he hopes to actually make enough money to send his oldest one to boarding school because, look, it turns out that like Ali shows, when refugees make their own money, they make their own choices, and they become better customers.

SMITH: Now, for years, refugee advocates and economists have been pushing countries to do exactly this, to allow refugees to work, to let them have the opportunity to contribute and support themselves. And in Uganda, they were excited because they finally had the chance to study a real-world example, a place where refugees have had the right to work now for 15 years.

ALEXANDER BETTS: So what Uganda allows us to show is, if you like, the boundaries of what's possible when we do give refugees basic freedoms.

WARNER: This is Professor Alex Betts.

BETTS: From Oxford.

SMITH: Where he's a professor in the department of refugee and forced migration studies that sent a team to interview about 1,600 refugees in Uganda, refugees from the Congo and Ethiopia and Somalia to try to exactly measure the effect they have on the local economy.

WARNER: And two things that he found that were pretty interesting, one is that the vast majority of refugees in the cities - and that's where most refugees live - are selling goods and services back to Uganda. So they're not just buying from them. They're trading with them. Even more interesting than that is that of the refugees who have kind of gone to the level where they're not just hiring themselves or working for themselves but actually hiring others, almost half of the people they employ are Ugandan nationals. So they're not just taking jobs. They're also making new ones.

BETTS: It's an extraordinary finding. It shows that far from being a burden on the host state, refugees can be a benefit. They make a really vibrant economic contribution.

WARNER: And as I'm walking around the camp, Nakivale, I can actually see this contribution happening. Nakivale looks nothing like a refugee camp that you might find in Kenya or in Rwanda or in Nigeria. In most refugee camps, you have series of tents, people inside the tents listless, sort of moping around, trying to use less calories. In this camp, it's kind of energetic. I'm walking around with Osman Faiz. He's the translator we heard from earlier. He says it's all because of the right to work.

O FAIZ: That's why you see everybody is rushing, working, not like the way you see it in Kenya. People are confined in the camps.

WARNER: People are rushing and working.

O FAIZ: Yeah. People are working, everybody.

WARNER: And he says like this guy, and he just turns to this guy with a kiosk who apparently will fix your broken cellphone for six bucks. And then right next to him is a fabric importer. A couple of houses down, we meet another guy. He's a Somali electrical engineer named Mohammad Djama (ph). He grabs me with one hand, he lost two fingers in the war, and he pulls me behind his house to a shed, which has the largest generator that I've ever seen in Uganda.

MOHAMMAD DJAMA: (Unintelligible) Generator.

WARNER: That's a big one.

DJAMA: Yeah, it's a big one. It's around 65 - no, 75 kVA. We have to bring all the (unintelligible) Congolese and Somalis, some Ethiopians (foreign language spoken) they are watching TV, they are getting some sort of utilities now. So I need backup for - at least, I wish if you could give me some - if somebody from the U.N. helped me out with the diesel.

WARNER: Robert, you heard what just happened there. One moment, Djama is bragging about his entrepreneurial prowess and being one of these refugee camp's main utility providers. And then in practically the same sentence he asks for a handout - U.N. money to buy gas.

SMITH: And that's an important part of this that we should mention, which is they are still in a refugee camp and they still get aid from the Ugandan government, which is getting some of the money from the U.N. and from humanitarian aid agencies. And because of this, there is still this stereotype, even though they're working, that they are there for handouts.

WARNER: Now, you'd think these stereotypes might have faded by now in Uganda 15 years into the right to work policy where people have been seeing refugees earning money, doing jobs.

SMITH: If they just walk through the camp, they could see all the businesses.

WARNER: But Osman Faiz says that when he comes to a Ugandan city and with money in his hand, money that he legally earned in his work as a translator, he is not treated like a regular customer.

O FAIZ: When you go to the shops, they look at you like this. They know technically you are not from Rwanda. You are a refugee, like you are a parasite. They rarely sell to you the way they sell to their fellow Ugandans. They hike their prices. You want to go to the next the shop, they will shout behind you that asshole is a Somali. I told him 50,000. Don't go less. So they are taking us. They are scamming (ph) us like that. They are not happy. The government is OK, but the public, they are not happy totally with refugees.

WARNER: And Osman's wife, Saudah Faiz (ph), tells me it's sort of a label problem. When people come to a country to work, they're called migrants. That's what she wants to be called, migrant, not refugee.

SAUDAH FAIZ: A refugee's a very - it's not a good name actually because a refugee you want to be helped. But a migrant, that would be - that would sound something good.


S FAIZ: (Laughter) Because you are just a refugee. You are just nothing.

WARNER: And Saudah says it's not just this feeling that other people see you as needing a handout. It's also just the fact that being a refugee is temporary. Even when you're busy working, as they are in Uganda, they're in limbo. In fact, Osman and Saudah have put in their application with refugee organizations to leave Uganda, to gain asylum in a country even more welcoming to refugees, the United States. In fact, everyone I met at this camp is trying to get out.

O FAIZ: They are waiting.

WARNER: They're waiting.

O FAIZ: They are only waiting for flight, to be resettled in America.

WARNER: I see. And how long does it take?

O FAIZ: A long process. The process is quite tiresome.

WARNER: It's a tiresome and long and very uncertain process. Osman himself has been through about 10 years of interviews with various American bureaucrats. And for all he knows, he could have 10 years left.

O FAIZ: You cannot ascertain. Maybe I have six months to go. I don't know (laughter).

WARNER: Mohammed Osman Ali with a video game arcade, he has no idea where he is in the process. All he knows is he has not gotten the first interview with the first bureaucrat of the many interviews he needs to win asylum to America. And so after this time we spend together in the video arcade, he comes out and he says, look, wait. One thing - you're a journalist. You can reach lots of Americans. Tell them something from me.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

O FAIZ: Tell them in the camps we had hard-working people, but time is eating us up here in the camp.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

O FAIZ: Make use of us.

WARNER: Make use of us, he tells me, now while we're strong and we're healthy and we can contribute something to the U.S. economy. Ali says don't wait to take us until we're old and we're tired.


K'NAAN: (Singing) Waiting for the sun, then waiting for the rain. Waiting for the night, then waiting for the day.

SMITH: We would love to hear what you thought of today's show. Email us - planetmoney@npr.org - or we tweet - @planetmoney. Today's show was produced by Jess Jiang. And I want to specially thank NPR's foreign desk for letting you join us, Greg.

WARNER: Yes. Thank you to foreign desk and thanks to PLANET MONEY. It's great to be here. I want to thank Marina Sharpe for walking me through Ugandan Self-Reliance Strategy details and also Georgette Bennett at the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees who put us in touch with Ahmed.

SMITH: If you're looking for another podcast to listen to now that you're at the end of this one, check out some of NPR's other great offerings, including the live debate show, Intelligence Squared U.S.. You can find it on iTunes under podcasts. I'm Robert Smith.

WARNER: And I'm Gregory Warner. Thanks for listening.


K'NAAN: (Singing) Waiting for a holiday so we can get away. Waiting to come home, at home we'll never want to stay. Waiting for love, waiting for love, waiting for love, waiting for love. Wait for me the sun got the stars...

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