Syrian refugee takes the hard road with his UK tech start-up

Wizme is growing, but business support for refugees is still patchy

Nour Mouakke originally came to the UK to study, but conflict in Syria meant he could not return. In the ten years he has been in the UK he has completed his masters, worked in hospitality and IT, and started his own business.

Nour Mouakke originally came to the UK to study, but conflict in Syria meant he could not return. In the ten years he has been in the UK he has completed his masters, worked in hospitality and IT, and started his own business.  © UNHCR/Katie Barlow

LONDON - The UK may be preparing for sweeping rule changes to make it harder for refugees to enter and stay in the country, but a small number of those who are already here – like Nour Mouakke – have shown how to thrive, grasping opportunities to build commercial ventures that bring value.

Mouakke, 38, originally from Syria, has been in the UK over a decade. He came here to study. But two years after arriving, conflict shattered his home country. He found himself unable to return home or see his family in Aleppo, and became a refugee.

Rather than sitting on his hands, Mouakke finished his Master’s in Marketing at Durham University, picked up work washing dishes in the Lake District, moved into hospitality sales in London for a major international hotel group, which valued his Arabic skills, and subsequently worked at a small IT firm.

After building his CV he founded Wizme (an amalgamation of ‘wizard,’ ‘meetings’ and ‘events’), an online start-up that automates the booking management process for meetings, events and group bookings for venues, intermediaries and organisations.

I haven’t been able to see my family, to support them or be supported by them. That is hard mentally – trying to live a 'normal’ life here when my family is in a war zone.

“It’s been incredibly complex to build a business as a refugee and sole founder,” Mouakke told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “There’s the normal challenges of a start-up. On top of that we’ve had COVID, which has hit travel and in-person meetings. And I haven’t been able to see my family, to support them or be supported by them. That is hard mentally – trying to live a 'normal’ life here when my family is in a war zone.”

In 2015, just as Syrian refugees were crossing in large numbers to Europe, Mouakke was putting Wizme’s foundations in place. He found an engineer and developers and incorporated Wizme in the UK. With no real income, he was couch-surfing, supported by a small grant from a government enterprise scheme.

“I gave up on social life, seeing friends, I couldn’t send money to family. I became homeless, sleeping on my friend’s sofa in London. He bought me the bed - I’ll never forget his kindness,” Mouakke said.

As Mouakke worked to pull ahead, his family was torn apart by events in his beloved Aleppo, one of the major battlefields of the Syrian conflict. Some other family members have fled for safety to Egypt. Aside from concerns about family and his home country, he has learning difficulties and struggles to read long texts. He has also had to contend with red tape in the UK. Mouakke gained refugee status in 2014 and is currently awaiting his citizenship.

  • Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business.
    Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business.  © UNHCR/Katie Barlow
  • Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business.
    Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business. © UNHCR/Katie Barlow
  • Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business.
    Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business. © UNHCR/Katie Barlow
  • Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business.
    Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business. © UNHCR/Katie Barlow
  • Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business.
    Despite the complexity of building a business as a refugee and a sole founder, with the challenges of COVID on top of that, Nour Mouakke's hard work and dedication has seen Wizme grow into a successful business. © UNHCR/Katie Barlow

Still, the business is now growing. Wizme recently landed its first major agency client, travel management company Blue Cube Travel (BCT), which has £35m turnover. Wizme has a Crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube, which is oversubscribed, and recently won its first hotel client, HotelREZ Hotels & Resorts.

UNHCR estimates there are about 130,000 refugees in the UK. They represent a range of nationalities and backgrounds that could diversify business culture and fill labour gaps. They have the right to work; doing so helps self-reliance and contributes to the economy. But the hurdles to getting there are multiple. Whilst refugees will often enter lower paid roles, many are ready to take on skilled positions or have the potential to start firms - if given a helping hand.