5 refugees who came to the UK to set up large businesses

Last Updated on: 22nd November 2023, 06:42 am

  1. John Christodoulou

In the summer of 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus in retaliation for the Greek junta’s military coup. John Christodoulou and his family, along with thousands of others, fled Cyprus, and many came to settle in the UK. John left school at 16 and trained as a diamond mounter. But he had a strong entrepreneurial streak and founded his own property business using a government grant.

From the purchase of his first studio flat, John Christodoulou build the Yianis Group, a property empire that owns a large portfolio of residential, retail, leisure, office and hotel property primarily in central London. An active and committed philanthropist, the Yianis Christodoulou Foundation supports and empowers underserved children and their families in the UK and abroad.

  1. Mahmud Kamani

In the 1960s, Mahmud Kamani’s father, Abdullah, emigrated from Kenya to Manchester. Determined to provide for his family, Abdullah set up a market stall selling handbags, handkerchiefs and towels from a market stall before starting a textile business. This entrepreneurial spirit rubbed off on his son, Mahmud who founded the highly successful online-retailer Boohoo with just three employees in 2006.

Known for being an understated man with none of the more obvious trappings of wealth, he floated Boohoo for £700 million in 2014, and the company is reputedly worth more than £2.6 billion today. He has passed his innovative mindset and philosophy of hard work on to his sons, who founded fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing in 2012.

  1. Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia

Alongside his family, Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia arrived in the UK in the 1970s at the age of just 13, escaping the tyrannical rule of Idi Amin in Uganda. After spending a year in temporary accommodation, Ahluwalia would go on to set up the largest car parts business in Europe, Euro Car Parts.

In 1978, Ahluwalia bought a car parts shop in London with money borrowed from his father and the bank. In 1981, he opened a second shop. Eying an opportunity to steal a march on the rest of the industry, Ahluwalia started importing and selling car parts for European cars, like BMW and VW, at a time when many accessories shops only sold British parts. Today Euro Car Parts employs more than 12,000 people across 300 locations.

Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia has also spoken about the role of immigrant enterprise in the UK, writing that “businesses need to speak loudly and proudly about the role immigrants and refugees play in our economy.” 

  1. Bakir Cola

When Saddam Hussain came to power in Iraq, as native Kurds and a likely target for Saddam, Bakir Cola’s family knew it was time to leave Iraq for good. At the age of 17, Cola left Baghdad and came to the UK. Though little is known about his early years, he was clearly a young man with drive and ambition. He saw an opportunity, seized it and started buying property.

Today, his company, Cola Holdings Limited, has owned and refurbished a large portfolio of luxury hotels including the Westbury in London’s Mayfair, Kensington Close hotel, Kingsway Hall and the De Vere Park hotel. His personal wealth is estimated by The Sunday Times Rich List 2018 to top £245 million.

  1. Assem Allam

Born in Egypt in 1939, Assem Allam was an official in the country’s finance ministry. But that senior job did not save him from physical torture after he spoke out against the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sentenced to 12 lashes, he still has the scars today. He left Egypt and arrived in the UK in 1968, studied economics at Hull University, qualified as an accountant and took work as a labourer until he could find a junior job as a clerk.

In 1981 he bought out the firm he was working for, and founded Allam Marine, the UK’s largest independent manufacturer and supplier of generators. A well-known face in his adopted county of the East Riding of Yorkshire, in 2010, Assem acquired Hull football club. A passionate philanthropist, in 2017 he donated £3 million to build a centre of research excellence at Hull Royal Infirmary.

The UK has a proud history of welcoming immigrants to the UK – and many of these refugees bring with them drive, determine and new ideas. As these five entrepreneurs prove, migration continues to play a role of critical importance in the Britain.

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