On Sept. 6, refugees from the four-year-old Syrian civil war continued to pour into Europe, and the violence was still tearing through the country.
And, yet, amazingly, in a college auditorium in Damascus, about 130 entrepreneurs, investors and speakers gathered for an Internet conference on how to build a tech ecosystem in Syria.
“Living in Damascus is crazy dangerous. When mortars fall in the inner city they hurt a lot of people,” said Sami Ismail, the 25-year-old who organized the conference. “But it’s not a stopping feeling. It’s life. You’ll never feel safe but you focus on the good things and positive things. This is why I’m focusing on entrepreneurship.”
He convinced speakers from around Damascus and the world to attend or Skype in, including a corporate citizenship manager from
in Tunisia, an Italian entrepreneur who met Ismail when he spoke at TedX in Rome last year, and a Syrian startup evangelist who fled the war and is now working in Helsinki.
A tech conference in war-time Damascus seems an example of two things: First, the capacity for people to carry on with something that resembles normal life even when the world around them is disintegrating. And second, it shows the way tech entrepreneurship has become a lifeline, a virtual community and a source of identity for young people around the globe, even those in the middle of war. Topics for the five-day conference included local and regional ecosystems, the experiences of entrepreneurs in Syria and “modern entrepreneurial process.”
“Here in Syria we have good entrepreneurs and good ideas,” said Alaa Tekleh, a 24-year-old freelance web designer. “We’re struggling to keep our entrepreneurial spirit alive. All what we want is to make a better future for Syria and our region.”
He has an idea for a virtual learning platform and attended the conference, which he said was worthwhile. The Internet is widely available in Syria, Tekleh said, though everyone is struggling with a bandwidth of about one megabit per second.
Sources in the region said any conference in Damascus was sure to have at least the tacit approval of the Assad regime. Many people outside Syria have severed ties with the country under Assad; the United States has sanctions against the government for the regime’s horrific humanitarian abuses.
Two speakers with American ties were listed on the conference web site, one a regional corporate citizenship manager for Microsoft, and one a financial advisor for
in South Carolina. Microsoft confirmed that she attended and said she spoke about general entrepreneurial topics. A spokesman for Edward Jones said the company, a financial firm that does business in the United States and Canada, wasn’t involved in the conference.
One businessman from outside Syria who supported the conference said he did so because of a desire to help startups. “My wife is Syrian and I love the country,” said Ahmed el Alfi, founder of Cairo-based venture capital firm Sawari Ventures, who helped Ismail line up speakers. “I would do anything I could to support anything positive done for Syrian startups.”
People who remain inside Syria have adapted to life as it is there now, Ismail said. He has put on the conference for two years with his events company, Intellect Events. Tickets this year were 9500 Syrian pounds, or $30 each.
The first year, he said, he invited government representatives, and they attended. This year, he didn’t invite them, he said, and heard nothing about it. “It’s good for the economy,” he said.
Hani Tarabichi, business development manager at Startup Commons Global, in Helsinki, Finland, said he spoke at the conference via Skype because “startup and entrepreneurship is my passion, spreading and sharing knowledge is part of what I strive to do.” He co-founded the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association in 2003, he said. Emilia Garito, who also spoke, said she met Ismail when he was invited to represent Syria and spoke at TedX in Rome, on the topic of experience and entrepreneurship.
I happened on Sami’s story when I saw a mention of the conference on Facebook, where he was promoting the five-day event, which advertised about more than 30 speakers, including many Syrian entrepreneurs and a tiny handful of investors — “Not deep pockets,” acknowledged Ismail.
The conference could not have happened without the support of the Higher Institute of Business Administration, which donated the space, he said.
Ismail is the veteran of four failed startups himself, he said — one a book finding company that was beginning to take off as the war began.
When I reached Ismail by Skype one evening in Damascus, he picked up his computer to show me the street scene, which looked like any other in the region’s cities: Life goes on, was his point. “Sometimes I really struggle with everything,” he said. “I focus on what I’m trying to achieve for my community … to spread the entrepreneurship and facilitate ecosystem growth.”
Ismail said his family had moved downtown when their neighborhood became a battleground between some of the factions in the civil war, which has roughly divided the country into four sections: one controlled by the Kurds; one controlled by the Islamic state; the central region, where more than 25 small opposition groups continue to fight the regime; and Damascus, which is still controlled by the regime.
I asked Ismail if he had thought about leaving, and he said he had. But “I don’t want to feel like a refugee,” he said. “I would need to be treated like a student or entrepreneur.”