Migrant Builds His Own Business Empire At Refugee Camp

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Helping others to thrive at a Kenyan refugee camp, Ethiopian migrant Mesfin Getahun was able to build his own business empire in the course of 16 years.

When we think of refugee camps, we often think of misery — and how could we not? Many of these locations are filled with migrants with nothing to their name who were forced to flee their home countries due to war and violence.

But when it comes to the Kakuma refugee camp in the underdeveloped Turkana County in Kenya, one particular story of success shows just how far anyone can go, even under the most difficult of situations, The Guardian reports.

Ethiopian migrant Mesfin Getahun, a former soldier, ended up in the camp in 2001, fleeing Ethiopia due to the political turmoil the country was going through. The 42-year-old started working at the sprawling camp as a cleaner at a refugee-run coffeehouse. With this job, he earned 1,000 Kenyan shillings a month, or the equivalent of a little over $9.

Seeing an opportunity to save so he could start a business himself, Getahun decided to keep as much as he could.

“I just kept that money. Then I used the savings to bake bread,” he said.

Over time, he started selling bread at his own bakery. After a few years, he decided to open a larger shop, selling a bigger variety of products.

While goods turned out a small profit, the 200,000 people living in the camp were in need of a series of items that weren't available anywhere else.

Without access to goods from outside the camp, Getahun noticed that residents relied heavily on refugee-run businesses for basic necessities, such as canned food, kitchenware, shampoo, and school supplies. This was enough incentive for him to go after products his fellow refugees needed. In no time, he had become one of the camp's top wholesalers, making about $10,000 a month.

Due to his success, he's now known at Kakuma as “the millionaire.”

“Most of the shopkeepers here, they are selling second-hand clothes. Only me, I was selling different things, different items,” he told reporters.

Now, he teaches other shopkeepers how to be better businessmen, encouraging them and also mentoring them. Many times, Getahun even serves as an investor, backing enterprises and creating a network of businesses that helped to turn his own shop into a successful wholesale operation.

According to Rahul Oka, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, Getahun's success over the 16 years he's been in the Kakuma camp shows just how unique he is.

“He’s actually replicated the Somali, or the Gujarati, or the Lebanese family business model, except that it’s not kin-related, but the ties are based on friendship and reciprocity,” Oka said.

Instead of keeping his money and the secret to his success all to himself, he decided to spread the wealth, help others, and as a result, help himself. Living modestly with his wife and two children in a room located in the back of his wholesale business, Getahun said that his Christian faith is what helped him succeed.

Over the years, he has used his profits to pay for people's hospital bills and helped to support the education of orphaned children. He has also helped refugees build churches, and at times, he even donates to mosques.

“I just follow the instructions of God,” he said. “I don’t want to see poor people so I help them.”

Despite his deep connection with the people at the camp, Getahun and his family were selected to resettle in the United States. Now, they are only waiting for the departure date. While this offer is a dream come true, it also imposes a series of new challenges to the businessman as his refugee status makes it difficult for him to collect his assets and transfer them to America. But staying could also be risky, as the Kenyan government has been threatening to close all refugee camps across the country due to security fears.

Hopefully, Getahun is able to address his financial concerns without missing the opportunity to make an even better life for himself and his family abroad. Those he's leaving behind are clearly much better off after having being helped by the generous “millionaire.”

Thumbnail and Banner image credit: Flickr user EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

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