Sumia’s successful career as a mechanical engineer was suddenly interrupted by the war. She and her family fled the country. Her mentor, the experienced managing director and coach Ralf Holtkamp, is keen to help her launch an export company dealing in interior building materials for kitchens and bathrooms in the MENA region.

Founder: Sumia Bizem

Idea: Exporting materials for kitchens and bathrooms

Founding in: Berlin

In Germany since: June 2015



Name: Ralf Holtkamp


About the entrepreneur:
Sumia lost her job in July, 2012, when her employer in Syria closed the local branch office because of the war. She took over the project management and bookkeeping in her husband’s architectural firm. Sumia speaks five languages: Arabic, Bosnian, English, French and German.


3 Fragen, 3 Antworten

WJD: What are you currently working on? Have you achieved some tangible success since you started working together?

Ralf: We are working on a concept for exporting interior construction materials for homes in the Arab states. Especially for kitchens and bathrooms, “Made in Germany” is a highly regarded brand there. We have to think about many practical issues and questions regarding the conditions and regulations surrounding our idea.

In terms of success, ask Sumia. I think: we have been able to bring some order into the large amount of things that need to be clarified, and we have discussed risk reduction strategies.

Sumia: We are currently working out a plan for the start-up and sorting out a whole lot of ideas. My husband has contributed plenty of ideas from his field, architecture, and I draw inspiration from mine: mechanical engineering.

WJD: Sumia, how are job hunting and the business environment different in Germany?

Sumia: (She laughs.) Well, everything is a lot slower here!

WJD: How so?

Sumia: Back in Damascus, contacts were everything. No matter if you were trying to start a company or find a job. You could get all your paperwork done in a single day. Germany is very different. The bureaucracy and all the regulations slow things down a bit. Like many other refugees, I am not used to that. Syria has only had private companies since around 2000. Before that, virtually all jobs were with ministries and public authorities.

Ralf: This problem is also due to the special status of refugees. Refugees have to pay close attention to what they are allowed to do and what might endanger their status. There is always that fear of something happening that could endanger their asylum.

Dealing with that situation of uncertainty is the greatest challenge, I think. How secure is my own residence, how are my relatives back home in Syria? Focusing on learning a new language and starting a business in such a situation is incredibly challenging.

When it comes to the start-up process, following a lean approach is particularly important, because the available resources are limited. You need to reduce your risks by finding out what is important at an early stage of your direct customer contact and using the results for the next round.

WJD: Thomas, what is special about Sumia’s project and working with her?

Ralf: It is exciting how much we have in common. Sumia comes from a different culture with a different native language, but we share so many opinions. Both of us want to actively contribute and create something.

WJD: Finally: what do you get out of your participation in this project? What motivates you?

Ralf: I think it is good and right that Germany offers asylum to refugees. I have been wanting to contribute to this cause for a long time. After trying a few different things, I realised that it is quite hard to make an actual difference. When I worked in the clothes depot of a refugee home, I probably spent most of my time being in the way. Once I found out about this programme, I knew that my entrepreneurial experience could actually be helpful. And I am absolutely convinced that starting a business in Germany is a wonderful way of integrating into society. I want to help with that.

Expanding my horizons and leaving my own filter bubble is very important to me. I enjoy learning about the views that people from a different cultural and linguistic background bring to Germany with them. I find it exciting and enriching. Our interactions have taught me almost tangibly what it means to be driven out of your country – your home and your professional environment – in fear for your life. Rather than an abstract concept, it becomes a direct and personal experience. This helps me appreciate things that I would otherwise take for granted. And this gratitude becomes a desire to help.