Mustafa Abdulameer, an Iraqi refugee in Finland, was adamant about using his skills and experience, and with a little support, he started his own company.
Mustafa pitching Corrsy at the Slush 2021 event. The Slush is a startup and tech event held annually in Helsinki, facilitating meetings between the founders of startups and investors. ©the Slush/Riku Kyla
Mustafa Abdulameer had led “a good life” in Iraq – he had graduated as an engineer and had built his own marketing pharmaceutical company. However, all this he had to leave behind, when he in 2015 was forced to flee Iraq in order to escape conscription to a military group. As so many others, he saw no other choice than to venture out on a dangerous journey. He crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a small rubber boat and traveled through several countries, before arriving in Finland.
Even though the journey was tough, the first six months in Finland were the most challenging time in Mustafa’s life. He lived in a crowded room in a reception center with nothing much to do.
“According to the immigration system, I was considered to be just a number. My skills were underestimated, and the people in the integration system told me that the best job I could get was working as a cleaner,” he says.
However, Mustafa did not give up and wanted to use his skills and make a change – and once he found Startup Refugees Finland, a newly started organization supporting refugees with employment and entrepreneurship, he was on his way.
Mustafa started volunteering as a translator and got several jobs by taking part in business and networking events through Startup Refugees. After a year of volunteering for Startup Refugees, Mustafa got a job as Community Coordinator. He was dedicated to his job and proceeded to become the Business Program Manager and then the Head of the Business Program, and later a Global Director at Startup Refugees.
He found in himself an eagerness to become an entrepreneur and once again run his own business. Already at the age of 15, Mustafa started his first business providing internet bandwidth for his neighborhood. “I consider myself an entrepreneur who always tries to answer the need,” Mustafa says.
He worked around the clock, taking courses and working in the business program while also developing his business idea. Since 2020, Mustafa is now the CEO and co-founder of the startup Corrsy, an educational mobile game, targeting school children in his home region, the Middle East, starting with Iraq.
The app provides educational material following the local curriculum but based on Finnish education principles – and it offers a cheaper and flexible alternative to the private tutoring, which is so common for many school children in the Middle East.
The path to starting up Corrsy – and becoming an entrepreneur in Finland – could not have happened without the support of Startup Refugees, Mustafa underlines.
“I remember once an investor said to me, that while Finnish people need to put in a lot of work, refugees need to work twice as hard to get investments. It is because you don’t have the network, you have no one vouch for you, you do not have credibility.”
Startup Refugees supports e.g. with guidance on taxation, the Finnish system as well as investment and funding opportunities. They also connect refugees with mentors in the relevant business areas, and they host events where business teams can test their ideas and products with real customers. In 2022, they received 570 applicants and enrolled 159 people – and overall Startup Refugees’ support has helped the creation of 69 registered businesses by refugees in Finland. Simultaneously, their Employment Programme has offered more than 1,500 jobs to refugees in Finland.
“We started the business program because we noticed a high entrepreneurial spirit among the newcomers in Finland,” says Elisa Vepsäläinen, CEO of Startup Refugees Finland. “The newcomers we meet really want to make a living themselves. They do not want to depend on social benefits. They have great ideas, and many would love to start their own businesses, but since our system here is very different from what they know, many do need a bit of support.”
Initiatives such as Startup Refugees are important to promote refugee employment and entrepreneurship, explains Karolis Zibas, Integration Officer at UNHCR’s Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries.
“Having a job and becoming part of the labor market in a host society is a significant step for refugees’ self-reliance and successful integration,” he says and adds: “Across the world, as well as in the Nordic and Baltic region, refugees show strong entrepreneurship potential by building businesses and creating social and civil society initiatives.”
Mustafa’s app Corrsy and its online education material is now being used by 167,000 secondary education pupils in Iraq. He has ambitions to grow his business and expand his educational services to more countries in the Middle East in order to help provide the supplementary education which is so essential and needed for many students in this region.
“It means a lot to me to see how the work that I have been passionate about for years, is now receiving amazing feedback from the users,” says Mustafa, while sending also a thought of gratitude to his new home and the people helping him achieve his goal:
“There are a lot of things I love about Finland, but what I really love is the people. They supported me a lot without wanting something in return.”