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Helping Refugees to Thrive

27 February 2017 at 8:49 am
Wendy Williams
Mahir Momand is the founding CEO of Thrive, a new microfinance business aimed at helping refugees in Australia. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 27 February 2017 at 8:49 am


Helping Refugees to Thrive
27 February 2017 at 8:49 am

Mahir Momand is the founding CEO of Thrive, a new microfinance business aimed at helping refugees in Australia. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Not-for-profit organisation Thrive is set to launch in April with a vision to provide microfinance and mentoring to assist refugees in Australia wanting to start their own business.

Supported by Westpac, Settlement Services International and AMES, Thrive hopes to help refugees make a meaningful economic contribution to Australia and highlight that contribution in the public domain.

Momand, who was recently appointed CEO ahead of the operational launch in April, has experience on both sides of the coin, as a microfinance expert who has also been a refugee for two-thirds of his life.

His previous roles include being a strategy leader at the Customer Owned Banking Association, a senior executive at the World Bank, financial adviser to the Afghanistan Federal Minister for Ministry of Labour and operations executive at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

He also previously ran a thriving microfinance business in his native Afghanistan, helping more than 165,000 small businesses to support almost a million people.

He expanded the microfinance program in Afghanistan to cover 50 per cent of geography in under five years but this was brought to a halt in 2012 when he was shot in the shoulder by the Taliban in Kabul and forced to flee the country for the third time in his life.

After five years in Australia he is now set to head up Thrive.

In this week’s Changemaker Momand talks about the challenges of starting over in a new country, the difference a loan can make to the life of a refugee and how he came to be placed on the Taliban’s blacklist.

Mahir MomandHow did you come to be a refugee in Australia?

It has been somewhat unfortunate for me because I have not been a refugee only in Australia but in different parts of the world, and for an absolute majority of my life. I am 35 and two-thirds of my life has been as a refugee. First in Pakistan, then Canada and then in Australia.

The reason I actually came here was, I used to run an organisation that provided loans to people in Afghanistan, so a very similar organisation as to what Thrive is trying to achieve here in terms of objectives. Obviously in Afghanistan we were providing loans to people who were local citizens they were not refugees, but these were similar loans in terms of microfinance loans that we were providing.

We were providing loans who were otherwise being recruited by the Taliban for insurgency purposes, because they didn’t have jobs. That was one category. The second category was people who would grow opium and farmers, and the majority of that revenue would be going to the Taliban so we would provide them loans to grow things like saffron that were much more expensive compared to opium and all the revenues from that would go to the farmers. We were also providing loans to women, who the Taliban hate in terms of people working with them.

So, the second time, when I went back to Afghanistan in late 2001, I started doing microfinance in 2003. Soon the Taliban noticed that we were providing loans to people who would be recruited by them and every time they came back to the villages, they were looking for more people to be recruited, they found less and less people. They soon found out there was this organisation that I had established with the World Bank, that was providing people loans. And then also, we were providing loans in a way where we charged interest, which is the traditional way of doing things and Taliban were saying well that is un-Islamic, because in Islam you can’t charge interest. So they started attacking us and that was around 2007/08 that I had to leave because a lot of my colleagues got killed and abducted, and after that I decided that it was time for me to leave because it was simply not safe for me and therefore I went to Canada and became a refugee there.

But when I was in Canada I always had this thought and I was quite naive, because I thought the Taliban attacked us, me and my colleagues, because we were involved in something un-Islamic. We were providing loans and we were charging interest. And then I was telling myself well there’s actually an Islamic way of doing microfinance, where you provide people finance but you don’t charge them interest, and you still run a microfinance organisation or program. So I said I will return to Afghanistan and do it this time the Islamic way. And therefore I naively assumed that the Taliban wouldn’t have an issue with that.

So anyway when I returned and started this last program that I was running, which was providing Islamic loans but we were working with women and we were working with people who would otherwise be growing opium or recruited by the Taliban, and therefore actually we were cutting from the Taliban’s revenues, from their insurgency capacity and all that and therefore it was not about Islam. It was about their capacity, their values, and they ideals that we were attacking and so I was attacked again in 2012 when I had to leave again and this time became a refugee in Australia.

The actual security term that the security people in Afghanistan who were in charge of my security use is “evacuation”. So I was evacuated immediately and then I arrived in Australia as a refugee.

You are set to take over as the founding chief executive of Thrive. Do you think your personal experience puts you in a unique position to help refugees in Australia?

Definitely. In terms of my own drive, because I have lived that experience and as I said, for the majority of my life, I know firsthand how it feels when you go to a new country and you try to set up yourself but you don’t have the social connections, you don’t know how to socially integrate and economically integrate and get a job or start by yourself. So all of those things, I have lived, for the absolute majority of my life.

So I believe as I have that first-hand experience, that I bring on board with this and because I come from that background, I know exactly how people feel, what types of insecurities and issues they may come across and how we can actually design the program that is refugee friendly. And that is what we have been doing in the past few weeks. In terms of the operating model and the design of this program, to make sure that it is refugee friendly and it caters very well to that demographic.

What difference can microfinance make to a refugee?

There are a few areas that we believe that it will have a direct impact on.

The first one is, as I said earlier, when people arrive here they obviously are not in their own environment, they don’t have those social connections that they used to have back home, they don’t have family and friends with them, so it is very important for them to not only economically integrate but also socially integrate. So one of the outcomes or impacts would be that in addition to making people financially independent when they arrive here, and they start doing their own businesses and through that economic integration into the Australian community but also socially integrated. For example, if someone starts a business and they are dealing with suppliers, with clients and customers and all that, that is all a social network they develop, friendships are built from there and all the social and human connections that are very much needed for life, so they are all developed through that. So that is one area of outcome we believe will be there.

The other outcome is if people wanted to have access to financial services here in Australia, if they don’t have a good credit history, mainstream financial institutions in the majority of the cases would be not be able to provide them loans and all that. So one impact of this program is for us to give people that beautiful credit history that they need because we don’t require them to have a prior credit history, we don’t require them to have collateral in terms of loan guarantees and all that, so it is an easy kind of like entry into this program and then from there, once they accept this program, they’ll be able to access mainstream financial services in the market.

And the third area of this creating impact is the fact that they’ll be creating jobs for themselves, and in some cases they may also be creating jobs for other similar refugees.

So they are two of three areas that we believe that this thing will have an impact on, so there’s a social side of impact, there is an economical side of impact and there’s also last but not least the fact that more people becoming financially independent means that they are a less and less burden on the welfare system.

There is from time to time this rhetoric in the community that refugees come to Australia and they may be a burden on the social welfare system. But with this thing when they start their own businesses and they start generating their own revenues and becoming financially independent, obviously that will have direct impact on them coming out of that reliance on a social welfare system.

Thrive is set to launch in April, is it exciting to be involved with something from the very beginning?

I am very excited about this not only because I am a refugee and this organisation is going to be working with refugees and eligible asylum seekers. But also because I come from that background of microfinance, because I set up microfinance organisations in Afghanistan and actually it was myself who introduced them to Afghanistan, so bringing that technical experience of coming from the microfinance sector and bringing that personal experience of being a refugee myself and the two of them combined in this position, it is very exciting, definitely.

Are you anticipating any major challenges?

One challenge initially that we believe will be there is actually making people aware, because when people come to Australia as refugees, and they arrive in maybe in their first weeks or months, you really are bombarded with a lot of information, this thing and that thing and how to get themselves set up with getting a bank account, and getting social services lined up, taking their kids to schools and finding out how to use buses and where the bus stops are and all that. So initially they will be very busy with that and so providing information about Thrive would be probably making it too much for them. That is one concern that we have at this stage because we believe that it may not be very easy to actually give them this information that there is this type of organisation that exists which can help them start small businesses if they plan to do so.

Another thing, if you think about it, is last year’s statistics if you look at the last year or actually at the past three or four years of the department of border protection, the majority of people, 65 per cent of so, come from the middle east, countries like Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, some from Africa in Sudan, some from Asia in places like Burma, but if you put all that together it is about 65 to 70 per cent, and  these countries if you look there, there is no social welfare system. What that means is, people living in those countries, in order to survive they would be either working for someone else, like the government or the public or private sector or they make be working for themselves in terms of small businesses and all that, because there is no social welfare system as I say.

So when they arrive here in Australia, probably one thing that some of them would want to do is to go back to the field where they come from, if they have small businesses in those countries where they come from they would naturally want to do something similar here. But the issue is when they arrive here in Australia, the regulatory environment and the compliance environment is very different compared to for example places like Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran or those places. There, if someone wants to start a new business, they would just go and start it without the need to get it registered, have an ABN or ACN for it or taxation or all that, here it is different.

Therefore, in addition to knowing that there is this organisation that exists called Thrive which would help them set up those businesses, they also need to understand the Australian way of doing business. And that is one element of our operating model also that we help them. We don’t only provide them loans, before we actually provide them loans we make sure that these people understand the local environment, that there is demand for the product and services that they are planning to sell, if they have the world’s best product and services but there is no market for it, obviously that business is not going to thrive.

So therefore we want to make sure that they have clearly understood the Australian business market, regulatory and compliance department and also that there is demand for their product and services, and once we are sure then we provide them a loan and even after the loan we help them with mentoring supports. We make sure that we do regular work with these businesses and if they have any issues when they actually operationalise their business, that we can help them to come out of those issues as well. So it is actually a total package that we provide, it is not only providing these loans.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

One of our ultimate goals is to make people financially independent and through that also showcase that when refugees come to Australia, not everyone is a burden on this country, and that people actually contribute to the Australian economy by creating jobs for themselves and others. Also if you look at the history of migrants and refugees in this country, about 900,000 people have arrived from the very beginning if you look back, and there are so many great examples of refugees coming here and making a fantastic contributions to the Australian economy, so we would like to highlight that element of refugees coming here and making economic contribution to Australia.

How do you find the time for you?

Outside of work I spend time with my kids and family. I have four kids, twin boys who have just started school this year, and when you have that many young kids, so our oldest is 12, a girl, and the second one, also a girl, is nine, the twin boys are just turning five. So it is quite busy keeping around them and from time to time I play sport and meet with friends and that’s how I spend my very little time that is left outside of work.

What inspires you?

In terms of my inspiration. I was one when I became a refugee and that was a time when my father was in prison, actually I was born when my father was in prison, he was a senior military general and actually is still a senior military general in the Afghanistan army, and he was head of prisons in Afghanistan when the Russians came in. In 1982 when I was born a few months prior to me coming into this world he was put in prison. So from age one, because my father was in prison, we couldn’t survive anymore in Afghanistan, my grandparents had to take us to Pakistan and effectively I became a refugee at age one.

Living there and growing up as a child I always felt there was something lacking, because I could see myself and I could see a normal Pakistani kid and there was a lot of difference between me and this kid. For example, during the day I used to work, starting at the age of nine and at night I would go to a refugee school, while during the day I would see a lot of other kids with beautiful uniforms and all that, which I didn’t have because I was a refugee not a local. So for all that time I had this feeling that when I grow up I would do something for people like myself to be of help to them. I always wanted to go back to Afghanistan and help people there. So that has been with me all my life. So that is the root cause and the reality is I always wanted to help people in similar positions as myself.

Therefore when I found the first opportunity to go back to Afghanistan, this was just weeks after the Taliban’s fall in Afghanistan, in 2001, post 9/11. We went back to Afghanistan and I started working with the United Nations and from there with the World Bank and I started that microfinance program.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?

One thing that I am very satisfied, I don’t know if I would calling it being proud of, but in terms of my job is, whenever in Afghanistan I went to one of the regions where we had our offices. So the offices that I established for the microfinance program, initially was just an idea and then I had to put it on paper and from there it became an organisation where we took it in just under five years to 41 locations and 50 per cent of Afghanistan’s geography. Which meant that I had to travel to all these areas.

A lot of times I would travel to one remote area and I would see for example a father and two or three sons, standing in very hot weather, selling cold water on the street, where cars would stop and then the father and a few kids would come and try and sell cold water to the drivers and people in those cars. And if we spoke with this person and said why are these kids not going to school, it is school time. A lot of time these people would tell us: “Look I can’t afford for these kids to go to school because if we are not two or three people selling water at the same time, I alone as just one person, cannot sell enough to make enough money for my familiy and therefore my kids need to come with me, most of the time boys, sometimes girls as well, to sell water, so we can make enough living.” Now to the majority of these people we would then provide loans to start small businesses.

Six months or nine months time I would return back and check as to what has been happening and every time we checked in the majority of those cases, those kids who I would have seen myself first hand selling water on the street, this time, six months or nine months later would be in school. The family would have access to a proper doctor, if they didn’t have electricity before, now they would have electricity, we would take a snapshot of their family household items initially and then come back in six months or nine months time and check what has changed and this time they would have probably a small tv, or a small fan and we could actually see that things had changed because of your work, for this family and for hundreds and thousands of those families.

Actually because we set up 156,000 small businesses which employed one million people in a country of 30 million population, so that gave me a lot of satisfaction because I could see firsthand how our work was changing lives for people, especially for children who obviously it was very hard for to be selling water on the street and not going to school. Which I personally resonated to a lot because I had been in that situation myself probably the majority of my young childhood, so that has been a very satisfactory result of my work in the past.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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