Refugee camps could be harbouring the great innovators of the future

Emma Sinclair
Syrian Refugee Children Living In The Za'atari Camp
The next Sergey Brin, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg may well be among those unschooled children (Source: Getty)

I’m a serial entrepreneur and proud of it.

I’m proud to be part of the entrepreneurial community – because the businesses we create, the innovations we produce, the processes we improve, are all key to economic prosperity.

Here in the UK, entrepreneurial companies generate the highest number of new jobs, fostering nearly all of the growth in the UK economy. And it’s no different anywhere else. Diversity of language, thought, age, gender, culture, geography, education, experience, and vision is key.

Read more: Digital London: How we can remain a capital of innovation

The world relies on innovative talent to grow our economies, enhance humanity’s future and change life as we know it. This talent can come from anywhere. But we risk that pool of people dramatically contracting if we don’t act to avert a crisis now.

Every day, more than 59m children do not attend their primary schools. Without an education, children can’t learn, play or develop. They are more likely to be trapped in cycles of poverty, disease and forced labour – often in dangerous environments. Even when children do go to primary school, 38m leave without learning to read, write or do basic maths.

That’s 39m people who have a reduced chance living up to their full potential and changing the world.

War, famine and natural disasters create another layer of challenge. Right now, 50m children have been uprooted from their homes. They face unimaginable hardship and are out of school. To put it into perspective, the ongoing conflict in Syria has caused the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

I saw this first hand when I recently visited Azraq camp in Jordan, a country home to 650,000 Syrians refugees, with Unicef UK.

The next Sergey Brin, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg could well be among those unschooled children. Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, Sigmund Freud, Michael Marks (of Marks and Spencer) were all refugees who fled the Nazis and anti-semitism. Freddy Mercury, meanwhile, fled violence in Zanzibar and went on to front one of the most successful bands of all time. Where would we be without them?

Here in the UK we benefit from a supportive and accessible ecosystem. Most of us have access to the internet and its rich resources, trade press, talks and events, alumni networks, friends – that support our career ambitions and desire for learning. That access is unavailable in refugee camps.

This is why I recently launched Unicef’s first crowd fund. Its aim is to raise money to roll out Innovation Labs, starting in Jordan, where young people can learn a social innovation curriculum including problem identification and solving, teamwork, and critical thinking.

The labs also teach technical skills for the twenty-first century, such as engineering, coding, programming and creative media.

The innovation programme aims to empower a new generation of social innovators and help these young people unlock their imagination, curiosity and creativity. We need to nurture young refugees to develop their ideas and offer seed funding to help get their innovative and life-changing initiatives off the ground. If we don’t, we will all miss out.

The crowd fund ends on 6 October. Between now and then, we have the chance to make a real difference. We can arm this generation of young people with the tools they desperately need – skills that they can carry with them wherever they settle, skills that enable them to reach their full potential. Without that, the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators may never have their opportunity to change the world.

That is something we cannot allow to happen.

If you want to contribute to Unicef’s Innovation Labs crowd fund, you can do so this week at

Read more: Founders not scroungers: There’s a business case for welcoming refugees

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