Refugees in focus: The role of the diaspora linked to business and entrepreneurship

Refugees in focus: The role of the diaspora linked to business and entrepreneurship

Yama Saraj fled war-torn Afghanistan with his family and has been a refugee in the Netherlands since 1998. He is an entrepreneur and an activist, working, in his own words, at  the intersection of art and technology. He studied Development Economics at Tilburg University. Yama is currently working on his master’s degree, where he is researching high-tech supply chain entrepreneurship. In this blog, as part of the Refugees in focus series, we asked Yama to share his story.

What is your story, in short?

I found myself in the Netherlands as a refugee at the young age of 12. As much as I hate it, that is a big part of my story. We had to flee the country due to political problems my parents were facing. We went through the asylum procedure fairly quickly. After a short language preparation school I was placed in a Dutch school.
After high school I first tried a degree in electrical engineering and then in industrial engineering, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I wanted to be an economist. After finishing my degree in economics at Tilburg University, I wanted to go back to my roots and be part of the reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been at war for the past 40 years. Due to this, there has been a tremendous amount of ‘brain drain’, as more than 10 million people have been displaced. Before we fled, my dad was an engineer and army officer and my mom was a professor in veterinary medicine at Kabul University.
As an economist, I have been interested in strategies to engage highly educated diaspora in reconstruction and conflict resolution efforts within their country of origin. Working in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, I realised the importance of private sector development and the role of diaspora to achieve this in collaboration with government and knowledge institutions. For this we need entrepreneurial-oriented diaspora with strong ties in the host country and in the country of origin.

How did you find your identity?

It hasn’t always been easy to figure out my way in a new country and environment. As a refugee, you lose your social capital and standing and have to start over. I think it was in high school where I became most acquainted with the Dutch culture and identity. In high school I had some inspirational teachers who were important to my development. I am blessed that I come from an intellectual family. We were brought up to be proud of our own culture and heritage, yet be open to adopt good elements from every culture.
Nevertheless, while growing up in the Netherlands, I always had a strong urge to go back to my roots and understand why things happened the way they did. Adventurous as I am, one day I drove from Eindhoven all the way to Afghanistan. I stayed there for half a year, working on development projects. While there, I found out that I do not have to choose between cultures, I can be a part of many different cultures. I don’t call myself Dutch, but I consider myself to be a lad from Eindhoven, as that is where I have lived most of my life and where I consider my home base.
Youngsters with a migrant background do face identity issues, especially as society becomes more polarised and we are facing populism and fearmongering. We all want to be part of a community and belong somewhere.
I truly believe that education is an important vehicle for social mobility, integration and participation of new potential citizens. There should be an institution where everyone can learn skills and competences to participate and be part of a cohesive society.

What are your current projects?

I am a young, ambitious change maker. I am chair of a foundation called Young Social Entrepreneurs for Afghanistan. I would like to continue doing development work in Afghanistan, but the security situation is limiting me. Furthermore, I would like to grow in my advisory role for policy makers and industry on social entrepreneurship linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It helps to be an entrepreneur yourself and lead with example.

How can higher education institutions help the diaspora?

The role of higher education should entail the following:

  • Use intercultural and multidisciplinary groups of people as an asset. Give them a feeling of inclusion rather than focusing on the differences and trying to create different approaches for different people. Diverse cultural backgrounds equals more innovation and more diverse outcomes.
  • Recognise talent instead of only focusing on providing help. Stop talking to people only as refugees, giving them inferiority complexes.
  • Create more entrepreneurial programmes as part of the curriculum focused on changing the world and educating future global citizens.
  • Create more collaborations with businesses, organisations, alumni and especially diaspora that can serve as best practices.

Special thanks to Elke van der Valk for editing this piece. Elke is Adviser Internationalisation at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. 
This post is part of the EAIE’s ‘Refugees in focus’ series, which covers refugee integration from a variety of angles.