‘I want refugees to feel like we don’t have to prove ourselves’ – Khaled Shaaban

MY IMPACT CAREER: Despite fleeing from Syria to Turkey to escape an oppressive regime, and then relocating to the Netherlands, Khaled Shaaban, the founder and CEO of ‘impact outsourcing’ platform Subul, shares how providing job opportunities for other refugees has always been at the heart of his work.

Khaled Shaaban has survived a lot, from being shot at in the desert while fleeing from Syria to Turkey, to dealing with the emotional exhaustion of applying for asylum in refugee camps in the Netherlands. In spite of all the upheaval in his life, one thing has remained constant: his dream of giving people the tools to help themselves.

Social enterprise, he says, is the key to building “financial sustainability”, “resilience” and “independence” for refugees like himself. However, as a skilled IT specialist and activist, he spent years growing non-profit organisations the Roia Foundation and the Mahart Academy in Syria and Turkey, aimed at increasing digital literacy in vulnerable communities, and using ICT to create infrastructure in conflict-affected regions. 

In 2019, he finally found a more sustainable way to marry his love for IT with his passion for creating social impact. He founded Subul (translated as ‘Pathways’ in Arabic), a social enterprise based in the Netherlands that specialises in tech ‘impact outsourcing’. It provides skilled refugees and disadvantaged people in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon access to jobs by connecting them with businesses that are searching for talent. Subul earns an income by charging the employers a management fee. Last year, the business connected 535 people to jobs in AI data annotation, and provided 55 people full-time employment in software development. 

 

 

 

 

What drives me is having been through the whole refugee experience and witnessing its impact on others. Despite going on this journey, I feel that I am privileged: I’ve managed to reach a level where I am financially independent. The percentage of people that reach this point is very low.

The thing I want is for my community as Syrians and refugees to feel like we don’t have to prove ourselves. We always feel insecure and feel like we need to overcompensate. I want my community to have the same feeling as the Dutch or British community. 

One of the main triggers that made me switch from the non-profit domain to social enterprise was the financial sustainability, rather than making people dependent on aid

One of the main triggers that made me switch from the non-profit domain to social enterprise was the financial sustainability, rather than making people dependent on aid. I want to create a small India in the Middle East. I was so inspired by India's economic development in terms of IT outsourcing. So, I thought, why don’t we do the same?

My childhood was intense. I have seven siblings. For eight years I was the youngest, so my parents told me I was spoiled. Because I was the youngest they were always sending me on errands: I had to throw away the garbage and go to the supermarket. I have trauma [from throwing away the garbage], actually!

I had to leave school after secondary school. My parents thought it was better to go to work than continue education. My grandad sent me to a computer shop to work. When I saw a computer mouse I asked them “What is this device that’s pretty?” and they told me it was called a computer mouse. That was the start of my journey. 

 

Details and highlights

  • Born: 1984, in Damascus, Syria.
  • Education: Dropped out of university to focus on his NGO work, and has several practical IT qualifications, including CompTIA A+ and Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification.
  • Lives: With his girlfriend in The Hague, the Netherlands. Has a 13-year-old daughter who lives in Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
  • Career milestones: Founded Roia (‘Vision’ in Arabic) a non-profit organisation that uses ICT for positive social impact (2012), founded Mahart (‘Skills’ in Arabic) an ICT academy to provide young people in Syria  with competitive tech skills (2016); co-founded Turnsole, a social enterprise that is specialised in technology solutions with a social mission to provide jobs for the disadvantaged people (2018),  Founded Subul (‘Pathways’ in Arabic) ( 2019), but registered it as a social enterprise in 2020.
  • Awards: Blossom Hill Foundation Fellowship (2012), a fellowship awarded to social entrepreneurs who have developed an innovative approach, programme, or product that positively impacts war-affected Middle Eastern communities; Echoing Green Fellowship (2022), a fellowship that supports social entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life by connecting them with tools, resources, and networks.
  • Subul’s turnover in 2023: €466,265.

 

I had to leave Syria because I was arrested by the Syrian regime, with around 50 other people. We were put into a big hole in the ground, where they started hitting us and shooting people in the head. They were taking revenge because the opposition militia in my district kidnapped two soldiers. We stayed in that hole for six hours, and then they took us to prison where we stayed for two weeks. 

In late 2012, after I’d been released from prison, the Syrian regime detained my friend and he told them my full name, so I had to send my family to Jordan for their safety. 

I spent a week travelling from Syria to Turkey with a group of activists from my town. We had to hide in the mountains, where we lived on tomatoes and cucumbers. We were shot at during that time, and that was one of two near-death moments in my life (the first being when I was in the hole). 

I lived in Turkey until they no longer allowed me to renew my tourist visa. I started trying to find alternative countries I could go to. I almost went to Brazil because they were accepting Syrians, but my Schengen visa had expired, eventually it was renewed in October 2021. That’s when I came to the Netherlands, where I spent 18 months in three refugee camps, applying for asylum.

My big career break was starting Subul in Turkey in 2020. Before that, from 2016 to 2020, we were only connecting the business to the talents we trained as a non-profit, not operating as an intermediary outsourcing agency. The Mahart Academy had trained around 800 people, but the employment outcomes were not significant; we were struggling to find them jobs. We managed to connect only 30% of them to jobs. It wasn’t sustainable. Businesses were hesitant to work directly with talents from the Middle East because of legal and financial complexities, such as the language and culture barrier, legalisation (many of them didn’t have a legal status in countries they resided in), and lastly, monetary infrastructure (many of them didn't have bank accounts). 

However, when we set up Subul in 2020, we gathered a team of 50 refugee workers that we started outsourcing to other companies. We handled everything: recruitment, contracting, payments, etc. Also, clients were more confident working with a European company as an intermediary. They were no longer working with us out of just sympathy, but also because we were providing a competitive service. That’s when I felt, “Okay, this is the first step in the right direction.” That was the year when I first registered Subul officially as a social enterprise. 

Khaled Shaaban training refugees and disadvantaged people in IT

Khaled Shaaban training refugees and disadvantaged people in IT in Turkey
 

Living in refugee camps in the Netherlands was a really terrible experience. There was zero privacy. You can’t work so you can’t afford to leave the camp. Imagine, you wake up every single day, you go to the information desk, and you check a list of names to see your name. That was my mission for 18 months, every single day, to get an appointment letter for your interview or a letter for the decision on your status. There is no deadline and there is no timeline. Whatever goals or dreams you have depend on whether you find your name on this list. Because you are so focused on the mission, you develop this vacuum in your life. So many people fall into depression and live in frustration because of the uncertainty. They don’t know if they will be sent back or not.

Something I regret is thinking of this social enterprise model late. I established Subul’s business model in 2020. I wish I had started earlier. I also wish the Roia Foundation was more specialised from the beginning. For years, we were wearing multiple hats. As a non-profit, we were running projects focused on human rights, telecommunications, and training. We should have focused solely on tech employment and training. We fundraised around $2m; we created an impact, but it would have been greater with specialisation.

They think: “Since you are Syrian you are a potential terrorist.” There are always stereotypes about refugees

My biggest challenge was banking, and it still is today. When you’re opening a bank account, they ask if you have connections to Syria and Somalia, and sometimes Yemen. I had to try three banks for one of them to accept me! If you’re Dutch you open one personal bank account and one business account. I have to open three or four personal accounts and five business accounts just in case they are closed. One bank closed my account without any explanation. They think: “Since you are Syrian you are a potential terrorist.” There are always stereotypes about refugees. I hope one day we can open an impact bank, where everybody can open an account!

My hope for the future is to create an ecosystem where communities affected by conflict can access jobs just like any other community…. An ecosystem that would create a bridge between the talent and the businesses that have the demand. Later it will be talent in general, but for now it will be tech.

 

Header image: Khaled Shaaban. Images courtesy of Khaled Shaaban

 

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