After fleeing war in Syria, Diyaa set up a workshop in Casablanca and won an award for entrepreneurship.
CASABLANCA, Morocco – Shoemaking is a craft handed down from father to son in Syria, and Diyaa and his family had been making footwear for decades when the war drove him from his home in the capital, Damascus.
Forced to start over in exile as a refugee, he founded a workshop in a tiny street in Casablanca, Morocco’s bustling coastal city, where he has settled with his wife and two children. He started from scratch, putting in long hours to make sandals, clogs and lace-up shoes.
“At the beginning, I worked for 18 to 20 hours a day and lived 20 kilometres away from Casablanca,” he says. “Each day, I had a two-hour ride one way to get to work.”
“Little by little, things improved. Today, I employ four Moroccan workers.”
Gradually, Diyaa’s perseverance paid off and his determination to succeed won him loyal customers and more orders with the help of a grant from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which allowed him to buy his first sewing machine.
“At the beginning, I worked alone. Then I received from UNHCR the first sewing machine as part of an income-generating activity for refugees. It was a real boost. Little by little, things improved. Today, I employ four Moroccan workers.”
Diyaa, 37, has chosen to employ Moroccans, whom he regards as “brothers”. “Moroccans have always inspired confidence in me,” he says. “As an employer, I feel reassured working hand in hand with them”.
More than six years of fighting have displaced more than six million people inside Syria and driven over five million to flee abroad. Most have sought safety in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and beyond, while Morocco hosts about 3,500 Syrian refugees.
In recognition of his efforts as a refugee entrepreneur making a contribution to his host country, Diyaa was awarded a prize by the Moroccan Association for the Support and Promotion of Small Enterprises, known as AMAPPE for short, in January 2016.
Hesitant at first, he said while receiving the prize: “I did not expect to be given awards. I came to Morocco with empty pockets. I had to start, not from zero, but from minus one hundred.”
He continued: “This acknowledges my efforts and hard work against all odds. Thanks to my work, my family and I were able to progress and regain some objectivity in life. Whenever I had difficulties, I was telling myself to never let go, to go forward with my head up and to get up every time I fell down. At the end of the day, it is my family’s welfare that kept me going.”
In its evaluation, AMAPPE noted that Diyaa not only employed young Moroccans from a poor neighbourhood, but also helped other Syrians to open a second shoe-making shop nearby.
“It is part of our vision in AMAPPE to generate collective projects because they have a high potential for sustainability,” says Mohammed Anwar, AMAPPE entrepreneurship and cooperation adviser.
“There is no place like home.”
“Diyaa really convinced us of his entrepreneurial spirit and this is a model which can be institutionalised in the future with other new beneficiaries.”
Diyaa and his wife, who came with him to Morocco from Syria, have two children – a four-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. Both go to a private Moroccan school in Casablanca. He decided not to go to Europe with his family because “Moroccan people are very hospitable and welcome Syrians in their country with open arms”. However, he would like to return to Syria when things improve. “There is no place like home,” he says, with a sigh.
Previously, Diyaa had no car and, with a small income, could afford little. Today, he finds Morocco comfortable. He can provide for his family and rents an apartment closer to his work.
In recent years, thousands of Syrian refugees have not only found safety, but also a breathing space in Morocco. “People here do not consider us as refugees but as human beings,” says Diyaa, from his market stall in Casablanca. “I no longer feel like a foreigner, but I am happy among Moroccans.”