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  • Maria Matskevich

Interview: The challenges of opening a business in Europe with a non-EU passport

To some, it may seem like not letting low skilled immigrants into their country is a good thing. I often hear the "we will be paying for them with our taxes" argument. While that has already been addressed by experts and compromises have been suggested - let's go along with it for a second. What if I told you that even high-skilled, university-educated people are getting turned down from opportunities in the EU or other countries that aren't their own? "Well, the government is just protecting its people and saving jobs for its citizens," I hear you say. OK. What if I tell you that this person wasn't looking to "steal" a job from a national, but wanted to create jobs for the citizens of the country in question? Would you get interested in the circumstances then? 

If yes, I invite you to grab a tea, coffee, or whatever your beverage of choice is and read through the following interview. A few weeks ago, I got the chance to catch up with a good friend of mine - Mohamed El-Sharkawi, a graduate of École hôtelière de Lausanne, a citizen of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and someone who's recently come face to face with the difficulties of immigration laws. 

Give it a read and let us know what you think. Do you find the limits he's faced as justified, or do you believe they are too much, and we all deserve more freedom?



Could you tell us a bit about your background and in what ways lack of freedom of movement has affected your life?


I was born to an Egyptian father and a Saudi mother and have lived in Saudi Arabia for most of my life. I went to school in Bahrain, which is a small island next to Saudi Arabia. I followed the IB program there, and after graduating, I went on to study hospitality at École hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) in Switzerland. 

As a kid, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel all across the world, meet new people, and get to know different cultures. That's why I wanted to get my bachelor's degree abroad and ended up going to EHL. Before my arrival, I had to get a student visa, so I couldn't just go to the university I chose. Of course, it's pretty standard, but it's still an extra thing to do before you can pursue your selected education. There are quite a lot of documents to provide. 

I ended up studying in Switzerland for 4 years and living there for 5. The first 6 months, I lived on campus, and the rest of the time - rented an apartment, so I was putting money directly into the Swiss economy. I paid taxes, rent, and everything I had to pay. 

Once I finished my studies at EHL, I decided to try climbing that enormous mountain of getting a job in Switzerland. I extended my B permit (permit given to students for the duration of their studies and renewed annually) for an additional 6 months, which allowed me to search for a job in Switzerland but without permission to work.


How did that go?


Well, I can now say that I was naive thinking that I could get a job in Switzerland with my nationality. Switzerland, in particular, is a tough place for foreigners to get a job. So I applied to many places and wasn't too strict on what I was willing to do, as long as it had something to do with the service industry. I applied to big companies, medium, small. Everything.

The closest place I got to getting a job was at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. I had an interview with the HR manager there and was very excited. It went very well; she liked my EHL background and thought my personality would fit President Wilson's culture well. So she told me that we would move forward, and right before we parted, asked me - what was my passport. I told her I have the Egyptian passport, and she sort of backed off a little bit. She almost cringed for lack of a better word. She said "I will do my best, I like you, but it's difficult with an Egyptian passport. Do you not have another passport?" I didn't; I have what I was born with. So the interview ended, and quite soon I got a call from the general manager and said that he doesn't have the budget to sponsor a visa, he would exceed his quota of how many foreigners they can hire, so despite them liking me - they couldn't hire me.


In your applications, did you list your nationality in your CV?


No, I was sneaky in my approach. I figured that if they immediately see Egyptian in my CV, they would quickly put me in the "no file." What I thought is, if I can just get an interview, show myself, maybe then the Egyptian passport won't be such a problem. Chances would increase, as opposed to if I had not met them at all. 

So, in my 6 months of looking for a job in Switzerland, I had roughly 6-7 face-to-face interviews, and all of them went great, but

the constant "brick wall" I encountered was when hiring managers heard of my passport. You can see the facial expression change. It's not their fault; it's the laws and restrictions that they also have to deal with. It honestly doesn't help either side.

Eventually, as my Swiss visa expired, I packed my bags and left to Saudi Arabia, where my mom is from. I stayed there and worked for about a year and a half. Then, I had another idea. 


Why didn't you want to go back to your home country after finishing the bachelor studies? Why not stay in your country where you have no visa issues?


To be honest, I enjoyed working in Saudi Arabia. I had no problem with that. But I did want to diversify myself. I grew up experiencing different cultures and traveling a lot. So I tried to do what felt right and explore new places. There are great opportunities for me in Saudi Arabia, that's for sure, but I felt like I absorbed what I wanted from there, and needed to explore something else. I wanted to immerse myself in this big world and see it. Also, since I was educated in Switzerland, I learned things that can be applied in my home country. Still, many of them are even more relevant for Switzerland and potentially Europe, as that's where my education took place.


What was your most recent experience with facing the lack of open borders?


My most recent experience is the one that's frustrated me most because if, in other cases, I can sort of see the reasoning behind the difficulties of immigrating to certain countries, in this case, I don't. 

What happened was - I was working in Saudi Arabia and wanted to bring a franchise called 9Round to Saudi Arabia. It's a specialized gym with an emphasis on kickboxing fitness training. I first encountered it in 2016, loved the company, and wanted to bring it back home to Saudi Arabia. So when I graduated from university - I looked it up, but it turns out someone had already bought the franchise for Saudi Arabia, and the gyms were already there. It was a massive success, so that was great. 

The franchisee took the entire eastern region, so I thought, why not bring this program to Switzerland? Since after Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the place I know best is Switzerland. I studied there, I know the market, I've been immersed there. I wanted to bring this fantastic company, which I believe would be a success in the Swiss market. I had an interview with franchise reps and my brother; we decided to pursue this together, we had to pass a bunch of meetings to show that we're good candidates to take the franchise to Switzerland. 

Once we got the rights, the franchise side was completed, and we had to go through the logistics of being from Saudi Arabia and building a company in Switzerland. I thought to myself - this shouldn't be a problem. Over 5 years, I'd be injecting over a million CHF into the Swiss economy. Plus, my business would be health-related, it would bring a lot of value and benefits to Swiss people, residents and so on. I am not bringing a fast-food chain, but something positive and health-related. I would be employing a minimum of 50 Swiss people, probably more. 

The next step was to open an LLC in a specific canton and go from there, but it turns out that even though I am opening this company, I would have to be employed by my own company because I am an Egyptian citizen. This took me almost to square one. I thought that if I am opening a company and putting direct money into the Swiss economy - it would make it easier, and I'd get a B or C permit. But when my lawyer told me this, I was shocked again and realized how genuinely limiting the immigration laws are nowadays.


What did you decide to do after facing yet another roadblock with opening your franchise?


I have a great lawyer in Zurich, and initially, when I told him I was Egyptian, he immediately said to me that it would be challenging to do this. He told me that I couldn't be the Director of the company, so I would have to find a Swiss person to put in charge. There was no way around that. 

I was so motivated by the idea of bringing this to Switzerland and coming back to live and work there. You see, Swiss people are very health conscious, but there isn't enough in terms of facilities. So I wanted to see this through, but there were constant barriers. Every day my brother and I had a new roadblock. Even just convincing the lawyer to take my case was hard. He knew the amount of work it would be and how unlikely the success was. He told me from the beginning that there's no guarantee of things working out. In any case, we decided to give it a try.

Funnily enough, the first thing I had to do was put 20'000 CHF into opening an LLC. So regardless of whether I'd get the permit to work in Switzerland - I had to put up the money to open a company I could potentially be unable to run later. 

Then, I would have to apply to my own company for a work visa. We searched with my lawyer and found that the canton Zug has the largest quota for permits. So we applied for the LLC there, but that's not the hard part. The hard part is the Swiss government accepting my business model and my company and me applying for the work visa, of course.


Are you still in the middle of this process, or did anything get resolved?


I am still in the middle of the process. After a lot of tries, the lawyer suggested that the best thing for me to do was apply for a 3-month permit to come and watch over my company. So I wouldn't be able to live in Switzerland and watch over my company the entire time. The whole year - I am allowed only 90 days to manage my company, which is very frustrating. As you can imagine, it's something I put a lot of effort into, and a lot of work is still ahead when you launch, it's a franchise, and it's a service - you need to be there to make sure the positioning is well done, that we hire good people, that our clients are well taken care of, etc. That's what ensures our long term success. This is also in the interest of Swiss people because if we're successful - we grow, and as we grow, we hire more people! Plus, one of the franchise requirements is that you are in the country where you're opening. 

So now I'm in the middle of the process, and it looks like I will be in Switzerland 90 days of the year, and then my brother will come in for another 90. So for 6 months at least one of us will be there, and the other 6 months would be for the Swiss Director. Who we need to make sure knows exactly what he is doing. 

This scenario would have to go until I can prove to the Swiss government that the company will flourish and that I am at least breaking even and employing Swiss workers. Then, I can try and reapply for a more extended permit. 


How do you feel about all these barriers you have to pass? Do you think they're in the best interest of the Swiss people?


Honestly, I find it illogical because I believe that for a company to be successful, which is in the interest of Swiss people, I would have to be there to oversee everything as much as possible. But that 90-day restriction is kind of undermining my chances. I can't be there to manage my business and hence have fewer chances of making it as successful as possible to prove my value then and get the work permit. It's holding me back. 

So it's not only damaging me, but it's also damaging the performance of the company, hence damaging the amount of benefits it will be bringing to the Swiss economy, thus, in a way, they are hurting themselves.

Because it's entirely possible I wouldn't be able to employ as many people as I could if I was there. If the founder is there to oversee all aspects, chances of success increase exponentially. There is a higher likelihood of more aggressive expansion. 


How do you think other countries would benefit from opening their borders?


I think you have to look at it as trade. It's a trade of labor. Everyone has their talents and insights in their chosen field, and every country is good at different things. Why do some countries import cotton, or why do some buy oil from Saudi Arabia? There are various advantages that every nation has. But these strict and rigid restrictions limit the potential of our world and society. 


How soon do you think we can get to open borders?


Hard to say. Step one is just shining a light on the idea because many people don't understand it, and I don't blame them. There hasn't been enough awareness of the difficulties some people face just because they were born with a particular nationality. 

After studying in Switzerland, I got many European friends, and when they hear of these difficulties, it's like there's a question mark in their head because they didn't have to face it. I don't blame them; it's not their fault; it is what it is.

So, how soon depends on how much light can be shed. How big a reach this subject can get and how many people see the benefits of open borders and not the risks. 

For me, the trade example is best because it's a proven economic fact that trade brings benefits to all countries. It's the same with labor - not just high-skilled, but all kinds. Not only tech geniuses. Not to mention, if we put everyone on a more or less equal playing field - people will be forced to compete, enhance themselves and their skills, which will lead to more innovation, ideas, and ways we can move forward in humanity.


This interview is part of a series on The Freedom of Movement Project. To discover more insights from people affected by the current immigration laws and to learn about the concept of open borders and freedom of movement - stay tuned on our website and let us know in the comments what YOU think about this subject.

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