Image for From adversity to empowerment: eight refugee entrepreneurs – in pictures

From adversity to empowerment: eight refugee entrepreneurs – in pictures

London-based refugees turned entrepreneurs tell their stories to mark Refugee Week

London-based refugees turned entrepreneurs tell their stories to mark Refugee Week

Eight London-based refugees turned entrepreneurs are being celebrated in a photo series, released to mark Refugee Week (17-23 June).

Photographer JJ Keith has collaborated with The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) on the collection of portraits, which are part of his wider project – Open Britain – about more than 100 first-generation migrants in Britain.

Those behind Open Britain and TERN offer the chance to support refugee-led businesses through Anqa: Europe’s first online marketplace for refugee-led businesses, launched by TERN in 2020.

“Everyone should have the right to follow their aspirations,” says Isobelle Ford, head of community ventures at TERN. “Each of the TERN x Open Britain stories spotlights the dream of an entrepreneur in our community, and follows the challenges they have overcome to make it a reality. Together, we can create a society where every refugee has a fair chance of building a livelihood.”

Read on for the business-owners’ stories.

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Akbar Majidova: the chef who found success on the UK culinary scene

Akbar, a chef originally from Uzbekistan, has built a successful culinary career in the UK. Together with his wife Sanobar, he runs the restaurant A Taste of Samarkand with the aim of showcasing and preserving their culture’s culinary traditions. In Uzbekistan, sharing food, particularly the signature rice dish palav, is a symbol of hospitality, unity and compassion.

Akbar and Sanobar took part in Food Power – TERN’s incubation programme for food and beverage entrepreneurs from a refugee background – where they won awards for their dishes and inspiring story. Their ultimate goal is not only to promote their delicious food but also to contribute to society, specifically in areas such as education, arts, music and supporting women and children in their home country.

Oleksii and Oksana Chaiun: founders of a family-focused firm

Husband and wife Oksana and Oleksii Chaiun met while working for an electrical retailer in Ukraine. Oksana came to the UK with 18-month-old Yeva and 14-year-old Artem three months after the Russian invasion, separated from Oleksii for more than a year and a half.

Oksana and Oleksii had a dream to be reunited, and start a business together. Oleksii started working with a friend’s woodwork factory while he was still in Ukraine and showed Oksana some oak homeware prototypes. In 2023 Oksana visited Oleksii in Ukraine. She returned with some of their lights and they sold out immediately. Their hard work, expertise and talents came together to create Light Craft Family, handcrafted LED night lights that cast a warm glow in familiar shapes.

Their mission is “to make any space feel like home”, the way their family feels at home anywhere they are together. The Chaiun’s vision is for their nightlights to spread peace, love and light, not only to support their own family here, but to support industry in Ukraine by manufacturing the oak pieces there, and hand-assembling in the UK.

Olena Nesterenko: finding the stage again

Everything changed for bubble show artist Olena when the war began in Ukraine. In April 2022 she came to the UK with her “two daughters, a small bag and a few documents” under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. She quickly managed to get a job as a teaching assistant. Olena was reluctant to continue with the bubbles, it somehow didn’t feel right. But with her mental health suffering, she realised that her passion was the therapy she needed. “When I perform now, I still have this special feeling. If I am in a bad mood, have bad feelings, or feel unwell, everything passes immediately,” she says.

Max: healing through photography and art

Max came to the UK in 2015 as a refugee. It took him five years to get asylum status, at which point his post-traumatic stress disorder peaked. He would experience nightmares about his persecution, so devised a unique way to cope: he put up Union Jack flags with signs in his government-sponsored room. The signs read ‘I am safe’ and ‘This is not real’ to help him recover when he woke at night. The Helen Bamber Foundation supported Max both legally and with his mental and physical health throughout his time as a refugee. Part of this support was a photography workshop called Photo Nomad, which Max credits with “turning his life from darkness to light”.

Razieh Riazati: the clinical psychologist turned ceramic artist

Razieh Riazati has founded a ceramics brand, Raaz Pottery, in the UK following her departure from Iran, where she worked in an orphanage teaching children pottery. Razieh continues to teach pottery, and is working with TERN to sell her art through Anqa Collective and more widely. Razieh explains that the earth and clay is different here in the UK, reflecting her adaptation to her new life. “Migration is not easy. Even the simple things must change – our habits and previous lifestyle.”

Veronika Shmorhun: uncovering hope in nature

Veronika Shmorhun was living in Kyiv when the Russians invaded, studying for her MA in graphic design, while also studying fashion design. She lived for two weeks under Russian occupation before evacuating through Poland to get a flight to London in April 2022. Seeking respite, she started to paint: her primary subject is nature, inspired by both the bombing, burned grain fields and broken trees that is the reality of the Ukrainian landscape today, and the hope and calm provided by the forests and parks in the UK.

She has produced four exhibitions in under two years, including a group show at the Saatchi Gallery. Meanwhile she has made the headdress and black outfit pictured here – her modern tribute to her homeland and national dress. She wears one of the most traditional colour combinations: black, which symbolises ploughed land, sadness and darkness, with red: symbolising love, fire, life and spilled blood. Veronika is working with TERN to develop her profile as an artist, as well as developing a career as a compositor in film post-production.

Vladimir Kolodin: uniting people via music

Vladimir Kolodin was unable to be openly gay in Kazakstan and faced continued oppression amidst the chaos that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 2016 he was forced to give up his comfortable life” and flee to the UK. In Kazakstan, Vlad did a PhD in psychology, hung out with underground shaman artists and drummers”, and played a variety of instruments as a hobby before finding work as a clinical psychologist and teaching at university.

In the UK, a lack of recognition of Vlad’s Kazak qualifications limited the work he could do here. He continued to play and learn new instruments and recognised he could combine his passion for supporting people’s mental health with his love for music. He founded Faerie Mystic, which uses a blend of acoustic, indigenous instruments and diverse spiritual traditions to create transcendental music that’s designed to bring people together and improve their mental wellbeing.

Vlad also felt that much of the queer community could benefit from spiritual focus and is concentrating on helping this community by creating a safe and joyful space for people of all genders and sexualities. Vlad is working with TERN to develop his vision for Faerie Mystic – he hopes to create a festival and a space for community-building.

Yeukai Taruvinga: empowering young people in London  

Yeukai Taruvinga is an activist, entrepreneur and founder of Active Horizons. Born in Zimbabwe, she fled to the UK due to political unrest and spent nine years in the asylum system. Now, she leads Active Horizons, a youth-led organisation empowering migrant and refugee young people in London. She also runs Shumba Boutique, for which she creates vibrant African clothing and supports women in Zimbabwe. The clothes are available through TERN’s online shop.

All photography: JJ Keith

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