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How refugees overcome the odds to become entrepreneurs

The research group included Hazara who opened kebab shops in Adelaide. Shutterstock

How refugees overcome the odds to become entrepreneurs

Refugees face monumental challenges when starting a business. Many lack formal education, capital, social capital (relationships in the community), English language skills, and knowledge of the local market and regulations.

Our research into a community of Hazara refugees provides some insight into how they overcome the odds. Over time they saved money from their jobs to raise start-up capital, often starting their business in partnership with friends and family members. Some turned their incarceration into an advantage, by partnering with other Hazara they met in camps to create businesses.

In short, through hard work, determination and risk-taking, the Hazara entrepreneurs learnt English, built up capital and social networks, and became familiar with Adelaide and its opportunities.

We interviewed 31 Hazara refugees in Adelaide – 29 males and two females, 15 of whom arrived by boat and spent time in Australian detention centres. These entrepreneurs have created over 180 local jobs, not including one business that has over 870 subcontractors.


Read more: Refugees are helping others in their situation as social entrepreneurs


The most unlikely entrepreneurs?

At first glance, refugees – and the Hazara in particular – are the most unlikely entrepreneurs. The challenges they face in starting a business (such as accessing credit and a lack of knowledge of potential opportunities in the local market) make it almost paradoxical that they do so well.

Overall, many immigrant groups have a higher rate of self-employment than the Australian-born. This can be explained more in terms of necessity than that some cultures are more entrepreneurial than others. Formal and informal racial discrimination can block access to jobs, for instance.

But refugees are unlike other immigrants in that they cannot rely on large family and community networks to help them raise capital or generate a market niche.

Many refugees also have experience running businesses prior to settling in Australia or other countries. One-third of those in our study had personal or familial entrepreneurial experience in Afghanistan. For refugees globally, these businesses are often in the informal economy, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Other research on refugee entrepreneurship shows that the Hazara community in Adelaide isn’t an isolated case.

In a study of Congolese, Somali and Rowandan Refugees in Uganda, researchers found that 60% were self-employed. Of these refugee businesses, 21% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas employ other people. What’s more, 44% of those employed by refugees in urban areas are native Ugandans.

Overcoming the odds

The wide variety of businesses started by those we spoke to show how enmeshed the Hazara community has become in the local market.

Seventeen of the Hazara entrepreneurs started up either charcoal kebab shops or small groceries selling imported products from Afghanistan, the Middle East or India. But others started painting businesses, day care centres, salvage lots, driving schools, travel agencies and translation services, or sold tyres and furniture, and printed signs.

The story of the Bayani brothers, Asef and Ali, two Hazara immigrants who started a travel agency, encapsulates how many refugees systematically overcome the challenges in front of them. When Ali and his siblings arrived in Australia they had no English skills. After 40 days in Woomera Detention Centre, the family were let out and began studying.

Me and my younger brother went to primary school, my older brother and sister to Adelaide Secondary College to learn English.

Soon Ali and his brother started an interpreting agency. They landed a contract translating from English to Dari for the Department of Immigration. Through this business, which brought them in contact with many other immigrants and refugees, the brothers stumbled across an even greater opportunity.

A lot of these clients wanted to go back to their country and asked us, “Can you organise it?” We referred so many, we thought, “Why not do our own?”

The two brothers now run both a travel agency and a translation service, through which they employ 870 subcontractors of many nationalities.


Read more: Refugees need support to continue their careers – here’s how it can be done


The data and research clearly show that humanitarian refugees are disproportionately entrepreneurial. And this is despite the many challenges that they often have to face.

In this light, it may be time to rethink the negative political and social discourse in Australia that constructs “boat people” in particular – and refugees in general – as a drain on the economy and incompatible with Australian society.

As the remarkable story of the Hazara in Adelaide shows, the journey from boats to businesses is difficult but possible with the hard work and determination to take advantage of the opportunities that Australia has given them.

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