Go-getting Refugees Start Over with Startups

July 2016

We live in complicated times, where 60 million people – more than twice the population of Australia - are displaced from their homes. For many of those people around the world, that displacement is an unwelcome consequence of armed conflict and persecution. For many, the refugee journey entails unimaginable risk, danger, loss and psychological harm.

The decision to leave everything behind, and head into the unknown, is not the kind of decision that one takes lightly. It’s a daunting prospect: abandoning all that you know - the familiar faces, the well-worn streets and, of course, the looming perils - in search of a safer life. There are no guarantees for those who flee their homelands; only the humble hope that ‘things’ will get better.

According to Dina Petrakis, things do get better when these people are shown some basic support and encouragement - not just better for them personally, but for the broader Australian society and economy. Ms Petrakis is an Enterprise Facilitator with the Ignite initiative; an innovative resettlement program that identifies and fosters entrepreneurial talent in newly arrived humanitarian entrants.

Before the Ignite program was created, refugee entrepreneurship – though common - was largely untapped in Australia. In 2010-11, ABS statistics showed that migrants who arrived in Australia as refugees were very likely to start their own unincorporated businesses.

Ms Petrakis explains, “Our CEO Violet Roumeliotis has worked in this sector for a long time and she has seen that a lot of the refugees who come to Australia are very entrepreneurial.” 

Refugee entrepreneurs

Dispelling the widely held myth that inbound refugees threaten to ‘take Australian jobs’, the evidence suggests that many humanitarian entrants in fact have the capacity to create their own jobs and income streams. So, rather than burdening the economy, refugees can in fact boost the economy when the right support mechanisms are in place. With that knowledge, the Ignite program treats participants as latent human resources, and accelerates their potential.

“We formed a collaboration with Dr Ernesto Sirolli from the United States - he trains enterprise facilitators who work with passionate entrepreneurs and help them to start their businesses,” Ms Petrakis says.

She has seen newly arrived refugees from as far afield as Sudan and Afghanistan launch successful businesses within months of joining the program.

“We work with the passion of the entrepreneur – whether they are chefs, craftspeople, tailors, photographers or artists. We work with their passion and, what they lack in terms of marketing and accounting skills, we find people who can help them with that knowledge gap.” 

Starting over

For many newly arrived refugees, life in Australia is a departure from everything that they have ever known: different language, different customs, different food and, for the entrepreneur, different business rules. Unlike the countries that many refugees leave behind, the Australian business environment is extremely regulated.

“Here, you need an ABN, you need to register your business name, you need an accountant to do your tax returns, and you need to keep invoices,” Ms Petrakis explains. “We work with accountants who are retired or those who help us for non-commercial rates. They help the business owner with all of those bureaucratic, legislative requirements.”

In the 2.5 years since the Ignite program was launched, it has helped to establish 46 small businesses and 95 per cent of participants are now financially independent, with no Centrelink assistance. Some of the Ignite startups have expanded to create further employment opportunities within their communities.

Evidently proud of the program’s achievements, Ms Petrakis says, “[These people have] got so much hope, so much passion, so much positivity, so much good will – you want to tap into that, to make sure that it’s utilised as they are resettling.”

For decades, refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia have been subjected to a xenophobic campaign of tacit dehumanisation and demonisation. Since September 11, 2001 our political leaders have systematically sought to conflate the topics of immigration and national security, using the spectre of terrorism to instill fear and loathing in the electorate.

Spectre of terrorism

Political rhetoric has become steeped in prejudice, excruciatingly dumbed down, and sloganised to the point where public discourse often resembles the mindless chanting of football hooligans. Amid the political ruckus, there’s a tendency to overlook the humanity and the potential of these people, seeking asylum on our shores.

In the lead-up to the latest Federal Election, Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton unapologetically branded refugees as innumerate, illiterate people, likely to “languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare” at the expense of Australian taxpayers. But the patent success of the Ignite program contradicts him and the knee-jerk naysayers who – after years of untoward political indoctrination - regard humanitarian entrants as an economic burden that Australia can’t carry. Carry? Who needs carrying? This new generation of refugee entrepreneurs is showing Australia that they have what it takes to survive and thrive.


Meet Mohammed:

Mohammed Ignites entrepreneurial passion

When Mohammed and his family came to Australia from Iran in 2013, they brought much more than a hard-luck refugee story with them. Judging from his luggage, it may have seemed that Mohammed had packed light. But he brought with him a lifelong love of sweet Persian delicacies that, with some help from Ignite, he has since transformed into a thriving family business in Merrylands, in Sydney’s west.

As a child, Mohammed worked in his father’s shop in Iran, selling ice cream and sweets. Otherwise known as bastani, Persian ice cream is laced with saffron, vanilla, rose water, pistachios and sometimes salep. Flakes of frozen clotted cream give the Persian dessert a uniquely chewy texture - it’s a delicious variant of ice cream, as we know it in the West.

Since opening last year, business is booming for Mohammed’s startup, Shiraz Ice Cream & Juice. The Merrylands cafe has introduced countless locals to the delights of Persian cuisine and hospitality. Mohammed takes great pride in his product, and revels in sharing the sweet traditions handed down to him by his father.


Meet Sima:

Sima Ignite

Sima arrived in Australia with her mother and son in 2013. Before fleeing Iran, Sima was a well-known leather worker and trainer who designed and crafted unique leather bags and wallets for several high-end shops. But a raft of faith-based government restrictions limited Sima’s access to employment, business and education opportunities.

When she first met with an Ignite Enterprise Facilitator, Sima couldn’t speak English. With help from an interpreter, she explained that she was passionate about her product, making it clear that she was determined to provide for her family by producing leather goods in Australia.

After two months in Australia, Sima registered and started her own business. Dubbed Bags of Love & Peace, Sima’s business aims to pass on a small piece of handcrafted love and peace with each item sold. 


Meet Damon:

Damon Ignite

Damon’s photographic journey started more than 20 years ago with his father’s old Konica camera in Iran. Like many aspiring photographers, his early experiments were images of nature, people and his surroundings. It soon became clear to Damon that this interest could be more than a hobby.

Before seeking asylum in Australia in 2013, Damon completed an Advanced Diploma in Photography at Jahad University, Karaj and was employed by Zibaloon Advertising Agency, Tehran as a full-time photographer. When Damon arrived in Australia, the Ignite program coordinators recognised in him a deep well of entrepreneurial passion and potential.

With guidance from Ignite, Damon has kept his dream alive. His work has been shown in major exhibitions around the country and his thriving freelance business, Damon Amb Photography, has transformed his undying love of photography into a viable way to earn a living.