Mahir Momand is the CEO of Thrive Refugee Enterprise. Originally from Afghanistan, he now lives in Australia
I refer to it as the black day in my life. The morning started just like any other for me in Afghanistan, filled with things to do from my busy schedule as a CEO. It was midday when things changed: I was shot by the Taliban and was immediately evacuated abroad the afternoon of that same day. It happened so quickly and yet it changed my life forever.
When I was attacked, I was the Founder and CEO of a large microfinance network in Afghanistan that helped thousands of Afghans create self-employment opportunities by starting their own small businesses. The network also helped farmers grow crops like saffron which allowed them to move away from the alternative of growing opium. Most importantly, we helped Afghan women – who make up 50% of Afghanistan’s population – start and run their own businesses, such as weaving rugs, an activity they could engage in from the comfort of their homes.
For this, not only was my life endangered but 17 of my colleagues were killed
By giving people tools to create employment opportunities, we were throwing a spanner in the works of the Taliban, as they had less options for recruitment, and with farmers growing saffron, their sources of revenue were cut. By helping Afghan women to gain economic ground, we were also attacking Taliban principles. For this, not only was my life endangered but 17 of my colleagues were killed.
When I arrived in Australia, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which took a toll on my life. The close care of my new Australian friends helped me to recover and integrate, albeit slowly. They supported me emotionally, guided me as I battled with my PTSD and were there for me even with the small things, like finding accommodation and attending cooking classes, as I had never cooked in my entire life.
My story is that of a lucky refugee: of one who finds a job at the very start of their arrival and as a result connects with people. However, the absolute majority of refugees in Australia, Europe and North America face social and economic isolation upon arrival in their host countries. Many refugees don’t have family and friends with them, they may not know the language of their new home and, just like me, they may be going through episodes of trauma. In addition to the language barriers, the individualism of western cultures also means that there is little interaction between locals and refugees.
From the economic perspective, despite being highly experienced professionals such as doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and pilots, refugees often face economic isolation as employers prefer local employees with experience in the host country. A vicious circle indeed as how can a person gain experience if no one employs them in the first place? It is a catch-22 situation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 31.7% of refugees in Australia are employed, and many of those who are not employed must rely on welfare benefits to survive.
Troubled by this idea of isolation, I was fortunate to find an opportunity to partner with some of Australia’s well-known business people and large corporations, pooling together our resources and establishing a unique microfinance organisation called Thrive Refugee Enterprise. Its unique organisational model has been developed thanks to some of Australia’s biggest corporations, which are also socially conscious and put in a fair share of their support. This is a somewhat new approach to helping refugees.
By starting their own small businesses, they integrate more easily into the social fabric of their host countries
Thrive helps people with refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds to integrate into Australian society and economy. By starting their own small businesses, they integrate more easily into the social fabric of their host countries because they get to interact with their customers, suppliers and other people. They learn the new language, norms and culture of their new country. As a result, they become “economically active” and financially self-reliant which makes them less dependent on benefits.
I believe creating conditions for this type of economic activity is the best way to integrate newcomers and refugees. Through economic activity and inclusion in labour markets refugees become physically and mentally active, socially integrated and economically supportive of their host countries. There are various unique and proven ways to make this happen, whether it’s through corporations, governments, citizens or a combination of these. Refugees can also help to fulfil societal needs in countries with aging populations and low fertility rates. This is the case in Germany and Australia, for example.
Integrating refugees would not only help meet the potential labour shortage but would also ensure that in the future, there will be enough working people per retiree. We shouldn’t forget that refugees are the labour force of today but also that of tomorrow.
This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Real people, true stories: refugees for more inclusive societies’, in which refugees past and present share their personal stories and offer forward-looking, experience-based recommendations for improving integration around the world.
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