CEO of Thrive Refugee Enterprise, Mahir Momand remembers his childhood clearly.
Living as a refugee in Pakistan, selling things by the day and attending a school for refugee children at night.
Learning numbers and language surrounded by bullets and guns, he wished for colourful books and uniforms, which other Pakistani children had.
Mahir and his family returned to Afghanistan 18 years later.
Driven by a desire to help others in similar situations, he started a microfinance program while working at the World Bank to help other Afghans become self-sufficient.
Mahir lived in constant threat from the Taliban who objected to the work he and his colleagues were doing. He eventually had to flee Afghanistan, leaving his family behind.
I spoke to Mahir about his childhood as a refugee in Pakistan, and his work for Thrive Refugee Enterprise.
What were some of your early experiences in Australia?
They have been very positive for me. Initially, the people I met were super nice and willing to go the extra mile to be kind, to make me feel at home, to give me the support and guidance that I needed at the time. There have been a few situations where I faced some racist reactions. Overall, the positive experiences outweigh the negative experiences I’ve had.
What does Thrive Refugee Enterprise do?
Thrive Refugee Enterprise helps refugees and asylum seekers to start small businesses in Australia. We provide them with business advice, support and microfinance loans.
How did you become CEO of Thrive?
When Thrive was registered, recruitment firm Korn Ferry was appointed to identify a CEO with relevant experience. Through that process, Korn Ferry identified me as someone who had relevant experience of microfinance and has lived the life of a refugee. I went through robust screening and interviewing and at the end was appointed as CEO of Thrive Refugee Enterprise.
Can you tell me a little bit about your role at Thrive Refugee Enterprise?
On a daily basis, I’m involved in strategy, planning and identifying what communities we should be focusing on. How to make our services accessible to a wider group of refugees who come from different regions of the world.
We make sure our customer experience is easy, quick and robust, identify the right business models for people new to Australia – so they can understand and manage them well – as bureaucracy around starting a business in Australia is different to other countries, for example, in Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan.
Before someone starts a business through Thrive, we do a due diligence or a business viability study to make sure the business will be successful. The last thing you want a refugee or asylum seeker to do in Australia is to start a business and then fail at it, which will affect other areas of their life. We want to avoid this.
Thrive is a not-for-profit organisation and our goal is to help refugees and asylum seekers with economic and social integration.
When a refugee starts a small business, they create employment for themselves and others, giving them an income. They come off Centrelink payments and become financially independent. They also contribute to the economy by paying taxes.
Social integration happens because as a small business owner, they interact with a range of stakeholders, customers, suppliers and learn how to communicate in English. They understand the norms and Australian culture and assimilate much faster.
There are economic and social benefits of people getting physically and mentally active, living with a purpose and creating self-employment in Australia.
Are you involved in other community projects?
I’ve created a Foundation that helps children in Afghanistan with education and healthcare. I did this because when I was growing up as a child, I didn’t have access to a proper education and colourful books.
We’ve established Afghanistan’s first mobile children’s library distributing beautiful books to children living in very remote areas. These colourful storybooks teach co-existence, peace, good manners and other values.
The libraries are set up on tricycle motorbikes. We’ve worked with well-known composers in Afghanistan to compose a particular tone to alert children when the motorbike goes through villages.
The children take their books, which are free. The bike returns two weeks later to collect them and allow children to swap them for new ones.
In Australia, I volunteer at a community organisation that assists homeless people.
What are your tips for other migrants?
When you arrive in Australia, if you don’t have good English skills, please make use of the Government’s generous program that helps you learn English.
When I came here, I already had a Master’s degree in Business Administration, specialising in Finance. Even though I didn’t need to, I studied for a Master’s degree from the University of Sydney, in Project Management.
It was important for me to get my education up to speed, study locally and make myself more relevant to employers in Australia, even though, I was already working full-time.
Use the educational opportunities you have here, make friends locally, and get into the fun life that Australians have, like following a particular footy team.
We have a culture of barbecues and beaches which is fun. Get out and meet people, because that’s a good way to integrate. The faster you integrate into the society, the easier it becomes.
Most people arrive in Australia without their friends and family, so take steps to make social connections.
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