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Richard Branson’s Latest Refugee Lifeline

Jamila Gandhi
Richard Branson’s Latest Refugee Lifeline Sir Richard Branson launched the MADE51 collection at the Virgin Megastore in The Dubai Mall. Image Courtesy: Virgin Megastore

Sir Richard Branson is a famously prolific blogger who has never been shy to share his thoughts, whether it’s his experience with dyslexia or expert tips on increasing employee engagement. But there is one day in particular that he never misses: June 20—World Refugee Day.

From flying in medical supplies and food to refugees in Jordan, to promoting a concert for countless refugees on Venezuela’s border with Columbia, the British founder of the Virgin Group, with a fortune of $4 billion, has long used his voice to encourage greater openness to refugees and to call for a better climate for their integration.

And recently, Branson also started using his retail stores to offer something tangible: dolls and pillowcases handmade by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, from MADE51’s latest collection.

A global brand created by UNHCR in 2018, MADE51 connects refugee artisans with local social enterprises to create beautifully crafted, handmade products for global markets. The collaborative initiative currently works with 22 local social enterprises in 15 countries. Virgin Megastore has become the first UNHCR partner to stock the MADE51 product range in-store in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. MADE51 aims to support 300,000 refugees by 2030.

In a world where nearly one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution, Branson believes that the new collection could encourage social enterprises to improve the ongoing global refugee crisis. “Each doll stands for a personal narrative, skillfully brought to life in the story stitched into these dolls. I’d love to bring a few of those to my home on Necker Island,” the self-made billionaire said in an interview with Forbes Middle East as he launched the collection in MENA last month, at the Virgin Megastore in The Dubai Mall.

The UNHCR reports that an unprecedented 25.9 million people around the world are currently refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, with 13 million people at the end of 2018—more than half of the Syrian population. To date, the UAE has provided more than $530 million in aid to alleviate the suffering of Syrians. It was one of the first countries to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

“Refugees leave so much behind—their homes, their community, their families. But what they take with them are their skills, their talents and their entrepreneurial spirit,” says 69-year-old Branson. Under MADE51, artisans are given the opportunity to earn an income and achieve economic independence by leveraging their unique skills, traditions and heritage. All MADE51 artisans are paid a fair wage, whether they reside in Burkina Faso, Jordan, Thailand or Afghanistan. But for many, creating and selling their own handmade wares means so much more than financial independence.

From pillows to bowls, each MADE51 product sold tells an artisan’s personal story about resilience, perseverance and beating the odds. “With this work, I felt that I was born again,” said a displaced Syrian artisan working with Waste Studio, an upcycling firm in Lebanon that turns advertising banners, tire inner tubing and seatbelt material into bags, accessories and furniture.

The initiative, however, is not to be mistaken as a CSR project in the charity corner. For Branson, this goes beyond just fulfilling a corporate obligation for Virgin. “We want to achieve what we’ve always been best at: nurturing entrepreneurial spirit and helping entrepreneurs succeed in the global marketplace,” he explains.

Giving refugees the opportunity to harness their talents stems from Branson’s ethos of community-building. In 2014, joining global efforts to prevent statelessness, the philanthropist was involved in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ #IBelong campaign, which asks governments to give everyone a nationality by 2030 and to ensure that future generations cannot become stateless.

For Branson, belonging means having roots, being accepted and welcomed. “Refugees have been robbed of those opportunities, but they have never lost their desire to belong. Belonging is dignity. Belonging is purpose. Belonging is community”. As the project grows, Branson hopes that other retailers will follow in Virgin’s footsteps and contribute to a butterfly effect on the crisis worldwide.

Until this dream is realized, we can look forward to reading about the partnership’s progress and the billionaire’s next refugee cause on his blog.

Jamila is a wealth reporter at Forbes Middle East Magazine, where her work includes billionaires’ philanthropy, influence and leadership insights.

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