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Business loans restart refugees’ lives

Written by Melissa Clarke

Mahir Momand

Hamid Ranjbarian ran his own business in Iran until he was forced to flee persecution in 2011. After a two-year wait in Indonesia he was finally granted an Australian visa. Right from the beginning he was keen to make a new start, use his business experience and become economically active.

Last year Ranjbarian started his own painting business, AAA Quality Painting and Decorating, contracting to several commercial painting projects in Sydney. As work increased, however, he found himself in need of additional support to expand his paint stock and to purchase the extra equipment required to deliver on jobs and remain cash flow positive. It was at this point that he turned to Thrive Refugee Enterprise.

Launched in April this year, Thrive is working to positively transform the lives of refugees and asylum seekers by helping them to build successful businesses with microfinance loans, as well as providing pre-loan support and post-loan mentoring. Refugees face a number of barriers when it comes to settling in to life in Australia. Many have suffered psychological trauma, possess limited English language skills and hold qualifications that aren’t readily recognised in Australia – all of which make it difficult to adjust socially and gain financial stability. For those looking to establish their own businesses, the economic stakes are especially high.

Without a traceable credit history, most are financially excluded from traditional lending options or forced to accept agreements with exorbitant interest rates. In addition, the complex bureaucratic requirements that need to be met to get a business registered and off the ground can be exceedingly difficult to navigate, particularly for non-English speakers.

The fact is, however, according to Thrive Chief Executive Mahir Momand (MCom ’17), that when given the opportunity, small businesses started by people from refugee backgrounds have much higher success rates than those started by members of other immigrant groups or even by local English speakers.1

“Many refugees come to Australia with small business experience already,” says Momand. “A large majority are coming from countries where it’s hard to get a job in the public sector, and a small private sector doesn’t offer the same extent of opportunities. But unfortunately, given the difficulties around launching a business in a new country, and lack of access to finance, in their first five years in Australia the number of businesses started by people of refugee backgrounds are much lower than businesses started by any other immigrant category.

“According to reports on the matter, the usual pattern for humanitarian migrants is to work for someone else initially and build up sufficient capital to set up their own business2. At Thrive we want to not only offer the needed business support but also provide refugee-friendly microfinance loans. Through our work, we give refugees the opportunity to economically integrate by starting their own small businesses, leading to them becoming financially independent and coming off welfare benefits.

“Additionally, through economic integration, we pave the path to faster social integration. When a refugee starts a small business, they interact with customers, suppliers and a range of other stakeholders, which helps the refugee business owner to excel [in] their English language skills, learn the norms of the society and elements of the culture, and embrace the new country’s culture – the country they now call home.”

When Momand speaks of the challenges and opportunities facing refugees, he does so with passion and conviction, because if anyone understands the plight of refugees, it’s him.

Born in 1982 in Afghanistan, Momand was one year old when his family fled to Pakistan after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland. He and his family returned to Afghanistan in 2001 after the US government overthrew the Taliban regime which had seized power following the Soviet withdrawal and civil war between Mujahideen groups.

Back in Afghanistan Momand worked as an administration officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and then with the World Bank on a microfinance lending program. He also served as financial adviser to the ministry of labour of the government of Afghanistan.

In 2008, he was again forced to leave Afghanistan after being put on a death list by Taliban insurgents. This time he moved to Canada, but ventured back to his homeland the following year where he became chief executive of the National Association of Credit Unions, which raised more than US$263 million from international donors and governments, employed more than 1200 people and helped set up 41 microfinance-based credit unions across the country.

Hamid Ranjbarian, AAA Quality Painting & Decorating

Hamid Ranjbarian, AAA Quality Painting & Decorating

In total, the microfinance programs run by Momand in Afghanistan helped set up 165,000 small to medium enterprises (SMEs), providing income for 1 million people in a country whose total population is 30 million.

Sadly, empowering his homeland’s rural community came at a price. Three years later Momand was again forced to flee his country, this time after 17 of his colleagues were killed by the Taliban and he himself was attacked. It was at this point that he made his journey to Australia.

“I have been a refugee all my life,” he says now. “I know how hard it is to arrive in a new country and to have to develop new social connections and to find work.”

Although the topic of refugees is often looked at from a political perspective and met with controversy, Momand says he isn’t in his business for the politics.

“Our work isn’t about getting caught up in the refugee laws or reform,” he says. “At Thrive, we are simply advocating for the refugees who are already here in Australia to economically and socially integrate. “It is in everyone’s interests to get refugees who are already in Australia into work. The refugees benefit by becoming economically, physically and psychologically active, and living with a purpose. The government benefits when refugees become financially independent, contribute to the economy by paying taxes and do not require social benefit payments anymore. The community at large benefits when additional people are in the workforce, and when refugees start to integrate by becoming fluent English speakers and adapting to the culture of their new country.

“Many refugees find low-skilled work when arriving, which is often highly underpaid. This can make it difficult to provide all their financial needs, and also prolongs the time it takes to integrate into society.”

Although it’s difficult to confirm unemployment statistics specifically for refugees, migrants in general currently account for 213,000 of the 490,000 people unemployed in Australia. Broken down by region, migrants from the Middle East and North Africa currently have a 25 percent rate of joblessness during their first five years in Australia – down from a high of 37 percent earlier this year.3

“We are moving people who otherwise would be reliant on the welfare system to be active contributors to the economy,” explains Momand. “Taking it a step further, in Australia we are facing the effects of an ageing population, coupled with a diminishing fertility rate.4 People from refugee backgrounds will not only assist in meeting today’s labour force demands, but also those of tomorrow.”

Despite having been in operation for only a few months, Thrive is already assisting more than 100 businesses to launch or expand their operations. Momand says the pre- and post-loan support provided to clients is crucial to the organisation’s mission.

Backed by a team of volunteers, clients are given advice and assistance to develop their business plans and conduct market research and viability assessments, as well as further advice and guidance over the first two to three years after their businesses launch. The Business School has recently partnered with Thrive and will offer senior undergraduate students the opportunity to engage with refugee clients and assist with the establishment of their businesses.

“I’m especially excited about this collaboration and the doors it will open for the students, as well as the work we’re doing and the client’s lives that will be impacted” says Momand. “As someone who has spent much of their life relocating, I have personally felt the effects of being an ‘outsider’ – facing judgements based on my name, skin colour, accent and background. But I feel very hopeful for the future. When I arrived in Australia, I found fantastic support from people who went miles out of their way to welcome me with opportunities and let me know I had a home here.”

Hamid Ranjbarian’s business, supported by Thrive, now provides for his family and employs seven other people. The connections he developed through Thrive have helped his cash flow by allowing him to build up his business and attract bigger contracts. He says he and his family are happy with their new life in Australia, and thankful for all the freedoms that living here has provided.

“My children are going to school, and making the most of their education here. My daughter even has a beautiful Australian accent!” he says.

Find out more, including how you can get involved.

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3418.0 ‘Personal income of migrants, Australia, 2011–12’, Focus on Humanitarian Migrants,; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Social (OECD), Employment and Migration Working Papers, Paris
2. Graeme Hugo, 2011, ‘Economic, social and civic contributions of first and second generation humanitarian entrants’, Final Report to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, p.179
3. A Current Affair, ‘Giving refugees a break’, Note that of the 190,000 migrants that arrive each year, less than 5 percent are refugees
4. Mccrindle Research, 2017, ‘Supply and demand; Australia as an ageing nation’, supply-and-demand-australia-as-an-ageing-nation; World Bank, 2017, ‘Fertility rate, total (births per woman)’, http://data.