Penniless refugees flee war to land on Rich List with £6bn

Source: The Sunday Times 

Assem Allam was tortured in Egypt and worked his way up to become wealthy in the UK
Assem Allam was tortured in Egypt and worked his way up to become wealthy in the UK. Source: Getty

They fled wars and despotic regimes, often arriving in this country with barely a penny to their name, but in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, 15 places are filled by former refugees who have together amassed wealth of more than £6bn.

Their number includes the Bangladesh-born seafood tycoon Iqbal Ahmed, who as a 14-year-old witnessed the massacre of nearly 100 Hindus during his nation’s independence war.

Then there is the billionaire financier Nadhmi Auchi, 80, who endured two spells in Iraqi prisons where he was beaten and tortured.

John Christodoulou, a low-profile property entrepreneur whose family fled Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of 1974, tops the list of refugee Rich Listers with a fortune put at £1.5bn. The 52-year-old’s empire includes two five-star hotels in London’s Canary Wharf.

The group of wealthy former refugees provides a first glimpse of next Sunday’s Rich List, the 30th edition of this newspaper’s definitive guide to UK wealth.

Over the years there has been a seismic shift in the composition of the list, with aristocrats and those with inherited fortunes giving way to hundreds of self-made entrepreneurs, many from humble backgrounds.

Few of the 1,000 individuals and families featured in this year’s Rich List have endured harder starts in life than those who arrived in the UK after fleeing dictatorships or civil wars.

Auchi, whose property and finance group General Mediterranean Holding employs about 11,000 people around the world, is one of three on the list to have come to the UK from Iraq. He was imprisoned for several months by Saddam Hussein’s regime and his brother was executed by the tyrant.

Assem Allam, 78, who made his money from building up a leading UK manufacturer of marine and industrial generators, also endured torture after speaking out against the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“I was given 12 lashes — the marks remained on body for years,” said Allam, adding that he does not consider himself a refugee as he came to the UK by “choice”.

He had brought $600,000 in cash with him when he came to Britain in the late 1960s. But when he paid the money into a branch of the former Midland Bank he was told all the notes were forged.

He was left with just £20 to support himself, his wife and two daughters. Allam’s wealth is now put at £200m and he has given about £40m to Hull University, the NHS and other worthy causes.

Allam had a senior auditing role in Egypt’s finance ministry, but when he came to Britain he took work as a labourer until he could find a junior job as a clerk.

“I was determined not to take benefits — I wanted to work,” he said. “So at the start, that meant taking jobs that I hated or that were junior, but I worked my way up. That is the message I would give to the young now. You have to be prepared to take work you may not want to do at the start.”

Ahmed came to the UK with his mother and siblings soon after witnessing the Burunga massacre in which Hindus were killed by Pakistani soldiers in 1971.

His father was already working in the UK and Ahmed and his brothers created the Seamark wholesale seafood business from their family’s corner shop in Oldham.

“I witnessed a terrible massacre of 94 innocent people in the grounds of my own school and many other hideous atrocities,” Ahmed wrote last year in his autobiography, King Prawn.

“I witnessed acts of heartbreaking brutality when my homeland was torn apart, but we survived. I want to show it is possible to start at the bottom and work your way up to success.”