Taking Care of Business. Visit the Migration Museum’s new exhibition

© Migration Museum_Elzbieta Piekacz

Nestled between clothes shops, food outlets and supermarkets, you could easily miss The Migration Museum. Yet the curators have ensured this won’t happen, as their iconic slabs of the Berlin Wall, with artwork by Stik and Thierry Noir, frame the entrance and grab visitors’ attention. 

This Refugee Week you can join them to learn about the history of refugee- and migrant-owned owned businesses, in their new exhibition Taking Care of Business. 

“Entrepreneurship has always been at the heart of the immigrant experience. For many, starting a business is the only way to survive in a new land, whilst others arrive with an idea and a plan. Immigrants are almost twice as likely to found a business as people born in the UK, while almost half of the UK’s fastest-growing companies have an immigrant founder.”

– Caption taken from the Taking Care of Business exhibition

Refugee Week is a time to celebrate the contribution that those forced to flee make to the countries they settle in, as well as the local communities who support them in doing this. When given the right help and correct opportunities, refugees can thrive. They not only becoming self-sufficient, but go to great lengths to give back.  

“The skills it takes to leave everything behind and start a new life abroad – risk taking, resourcefulness, adaptability, grit – are the same skills that drive successful businesses. So it’s no surprise that, whether out of necessity or choice, entrepreneurship has always been at the heart of the immigrant experience in Britain,”

– Aditi Anand, Artistic Director 

The exhibition may surprise many, as household names like Marks and Spencer, Costa Coffee and Rimmel are prominent examples of migrant owned businesses. Alongside these, the gallery houses examples of local businesses that have been a cornerstone of their communities for years.  

Walking around, the gallery is full of images of families working together to keep their businesses going, and personal accounts that allow you to understand how important a business can be to someone, especially when they are establishing themselves away from home. Tying this all together is a wider sense of community, recognising the shared experience of those who use these shops, restaurants and services. 

Included in this are fascinating first-hand narratives from those who were forced to flee their homes, establishing their businesses after seeking asylum in the UK.

Here we feature some of these stories. 

Levant Book Café 

© Sana Badri

Sameh Asami, originally from Syria, came to the UK in 2011. He opened the Levant Book Café in 2018, in North West London 

“Our family was forced to leave Damascus during the 2011 Syrian conflict. The experience of leaving a place that we loved left us with a profound sense of longing for our home. But we still have our recollections. The Levant Book Café is the physical manifestation of these memories. 

We set out to create a small corner of Damascus that could hold these memories dear: the colours of the stained glass windows we grew up running past on our way to school, the books we used to see at Souk Al-Hamidiyeh, and the mosaic decorations we would admire at the Umayyad Mosque.

The café is an archive of Syrian history as well as a space that preserves and values Levantine societal norms and customs.

Interview by Nabil Al-Kinani Photographs by Sana Badri. Courtesy of Pipe Dreams, Shubbak Festival 2021 

Zeret Kitchen 

© Elzbieta Piekacz

Tafeswork Belayneh is from Ethiopia. She arrived in the UK during the 1990s, and went on to open Zeret Kitchen in 2004. 

“The name of my restaurant comes from the small town where I was born and grew up in Ethiopia. I moved to the UK in the 1990s.  

At the time, Ethiopia had just come out of a devastating civil war and it was difficult for me to stay there.  

Generally in Ethiopia, cooking is a woman’s duty. I learnt to cook as a child so it was the easiest route for me to start a business. I started with my own money. I couldn’t hire any staff so I had to do everything myself: the cleaning, cooking, managing, shopping.  

So it was a big gamble. I thought about quitting at times but the restaurant is like a child for me, and I want to look after it until it grows.  

Whoever comes to Zeret Kitchen, I feel they are coming to my own home. I serve them in that way. When I came to this country, everybody only thought of famine and poverty when they thought of Ethiopia.  

I’m proud of putting Ethiopian food on the map in my own small way. We may be a poor country but we are rich in history and culture.”

Interview by Cym Henry, photographs by Elzbieta Piekacz 

Orientalist Rug

© Orientalist Rug

Houshang Sajhai arrived in the UK in 1974. He is originally from Iran. 

“My family had a beautiful carpet shop in Ferdowsi, one of the most famous streets in Tehran. On average a hundred people came to our shop every day, including famous people like Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Lauren and Elizabeth Taylor. 
In 1975, when I was 25 years old, my brother gave me the capital to set up a shop in New Bond Street – the top place for Persian carpets. We had a successful business there for 11 years and then I’d had enough. I went to Los Angeles, got married and came back to start a business somewhere quieter, where people could learn about the art of rug making. In Kentish Town our customers know us. We don’t rush them. We don’t force them to buy. I sometimes suggest they take a rug away for a few months and then pay later. 

We have rugs here from hundreds of different villages. Each rug tells a story. An expert can tell you where a rug comes from and, if he is really good, he can tell you who wove it. 

I came here as an investor but after two years I received a letter from the Home Office saying I had no permission to stay. At the time fundamentalists were gaining power in Iran and my family, as Jewish Iranians, were beginning to feel an unease. It was too dangerous to go back, so I applied as a refugee. My family left everything – our shops and our properties. Since then, we have never been back to Iran. 

I found out that our names are on a red list. 

I love London. It’s the centre of the world. But I miss the magic of Persia. It’s my dream to go back there. It makes me cry to think I never can. If the regime goes, this is my only wish.”

Taking Care of Business: Migrant Entrepreneurs and the Making of Modern Britain is open now and free to visit.  

The Migration Museum is hosting a Refugee Week Late on Thursday 23 June. You can book here.