Business was starting to go well for the tech start-up title="Rootal">Rootal in 2011, until a car bomb went off just blocks from its Damascus headquarters. Now, more than two years after its founder ended up on the Syrian government’s wanted list, this fledgling firm has bedded down in London, a city which has welcomed millions of refugees over the centuries. Rootal, which specializes in geolocation services, has a new home – but memories of wartorn Syria are never far away for its founder Adnan Al-Khatib. When we meet in an peacefully anonymous Starbucks in central London, he sketches a horrifyingly matter-of-fact portrait of the war which encroached on his once happy life.
“I remember sitting there and reading that there was fighting up north, which seemed far away,” he recalls. “The next day it’s in Homms, which is closer. A few weeks later it’s moved into the suburbs of Damascus and I managed to convince myself that too was a long way away. Then a bomb blast goes off in my neighborhood and a car goes up, with firefights right in front of my home. You find yourself not caring, because the bullets aren’t coming in. You just become desensitized.”
Al-Khatib is lucky to even be in Britain, which is becoming less hospitable to refugees. Without his dual citizenship, the entrepreneur would probably be languishing in a Syrian jail or perhaps buried in some anonymous grave. He speaks with a slight northern English twang picked up in his youth, when his parents lived in a rather grim Yorkshire town called Doncaster, but peppers his speech with the phrases you’d expect to hear on the lips of a Silicon Valley millionaire. “We’re interested in helping developers create amazing experiences,” he emotes. “ We want to assist them in making products that provide beautiful functionalities.”
Rootal was founded in Damascus in December 2010 and is dedicated to providing developers with access to a grab bag of location based tools. Rootal’s big selling point is its ability to track users not just as individuals, but as groups or herds. Using the Rootal tools, developers can build into their apps the ability to recognize when large numbers of people come together, perhaps in a shopping mall or at a concert. The whole group can then be targeted with specially tailored content, while the developer can carry out sophisticated analytics on the movement and behavior of the herd. Al-Khatib claims his firm’s software can recognize when 100 people are located within a hundred meters of one another anywhere in the world, a feat he admits is a bit “tricky”.
He is at pains to stress that there’s nothing inherently unsettling about this: “We are Syrians, so we know what it is like to be spied on. We don’t like our privacy invaded so we don’t do creepy and we don’t do intrusive. Nobody will be able to know you were at at any given point, because the information is all statistical and anonymous. Nothing will be attributed to specific users and we are very strict about that.”
Before the conflict started, Al-Khatib’s firm was beginning to pick up customers and attract the attention of seed funds and incubators in the Middle East. Now, due to Syria’s bloody and ongoing civil war, the Rootal developers are split across several countries, including Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. One programmer remains in Syria, but he is “somewhere safe”, Al-Khatib insists. The young entrepreneur was forced to flee due to his association with elements of the Syrian opposition, although he does not want me to publish more details of this for fear of endangering the lives of his friends who weren’t able to seek refuge abroad.
The exodus must have been a stressful experience – and it shows. The hopeful 23-year-old entrepreneur looks a fair bit older than the image on his LinkedIn profile, which was taken under far sunnier skies than the cloudy London firmament he is shivering under when we meet. When that picture was taken, he was a promising student on a scholarship at the top university back home in Damascus. He ended up on a government wanted list and had to flee for his life, stopping briefly in Dubai before settling in London, where he’s working to finish a Masters degree while trying to get Rootal off the ground. He’s glad to be in a city where he’s not only safe, but has has the chance to help his business grow on an international scale.
“I think London has the potential to be the Silicon Valley of the Western hemisphere,” he tells me. “There is a really open culture here, which is different than the Valley, which I think can be a bit insular and difficult to break into. If you didn’t start there, it’s hard to get in. London is trying to be as open as possible and accepting to foreign start ups who come from anywhere east of Dublin.”
Not everyone in Syria is fortunate enough to be able to seek asylum in Britain. Some 9 million people have been displaced by the conflict, while more than 100,000 have been killed in the increasingly bloody conflict. There has been mounting criticism of the British government’s refusal to let Syrian refugees into the country, coming from the most unlikely of sources. Nigel Farage, who heads up a controversial, rather eccentric right-wing party called the UK Independence Party, recently called for refugees to be allowed to come to the UK, a fairly surprising move for a notorious isolationist opposed to membership of the Europe Union. “There is a responsibility on all of us in the free West to try and help some of those people fleeing Syria, literally in fear of their lives,” he said. His demands were later backed by leading figures in the Conservative Party, which is currently in power as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Al-Khatib would certainly like to see some of his friends, family and colleagues able to come to Britain and is critical of the government’s refusal to open the doors. “I cannot go home but I am only allowed to be here because of my British citizenship,” he adds. “If it weren’t for my passport, I would not even be here, trust me. Getting a British visa if you’re Syrian or Libyan is really, really hard. We have a civil war going on and it’s Westminster policy to not let people inclined towards violence in. However, I think the policy of being heartless is antithetical to what London and Britain needs. Britain should not lose its moral compass.”