Hanif Rahimi sold everything he had to help his family escape Afghanistan and the Taliban after being beaten and left for dead because he belonged to the persecuted Hazara community.
After months in hiding and then a dangerous journey by boat – “It was as if God had sent angels to save us”, he says of their rescue by the Australian Navy – he and his family found safety in Australia.
Today he is an example of how the Hazara community is overcoming high employment by embracing entrepreneurship, with a new study showing a significant percentage of Hazara establishing businesses in Adelaide.
Some have achieved this business success after long periods in the Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia, the researchers say.
After arriving in Australia via Iran and Indonesia, Rahimi began work to rebuild his family’s life – picking grapes, landscaping roadsides and working in foundries making parts for mining equipment and trains. “It was hard and dirty work,” he says. He worked night shifts and extended shifts to boost his pay, sometimes seven days a week.
“After some time, I got an easier factory job, and only worked five days a week” – but he also secured a licence to drive a taxi on his two days’ off.
Then in 2006 he purchased his own taxi, and after six months another vehicle, employing a driver. “When I thought to myself I could become a businessman, I became so excited and my motivation to work doubled,” he recalls.
When I thought to myself I could become a businessman, I became so excited and my motivation to work doubled
Those taxis were the start of a fleet that today numbers 38 and which provides work for 80-plus drivers. A workshop for taxi maintenance provides jobs for another three people. Rahimi has also invested in a tyre business and a supermarket that specialises in foods and goods of Middle Eastern origin.
“Hazara refugees arrive in Australia with little to no financial capital and a fragmented support network, but a significant percentage have overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers to establish businesses,” says Professor Jock Collins of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), who is leading a study into refugee entrepreneurship.
“The Hazara are a resilient, hardworking and determined community of refugees,” Professor Collins says. “Through their entrepreneurial endeavours they are generating a better life for their families and jobs for fellow refugees, while contributing to their local refugee and cosmopolitan Australian local community.”
According to figures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 28 per cent of all people born in Afghanistan, aged 15 and over, now living in South Australia, were unemployed in 2014, with many others underemployed and looking to increase the hours they were working.
Professor Collins, who is a social economist with the Centre for Business and Social Innovation (CBSI) at UTS, and Dr Katherine Watson interviewed 31 refugee entrepreneurs from Adelaide’s Hazara community as part of the national, Australian Research Council funded study of refugee entrepreneurs. About half had spent time in detention – most at Woomera.
The Bayani brothers, Asef and Ali, were just boys when they arrived in Australia and were taken initially to Woomera. Today they are the proprietors of the Advanced Language Services interpreting agency and of Bayani Air Travels.
“I noticed a good opportunity and created an agency supplying the government,” says Ali Bayani says of the translating operation.
Walk-in business for these interpreter/translation services prompted their second idea. “A lot of these [walk-in] 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?’.”
For most Hazara refugees in Adelaide the move to entrepreneurship is driven by necessity and a desire to provide for their families, Professor Collins says.
“For refugees today – like many previous decades of minority immigrant arrivals – opening up a business is the only way to open up access to the labour market and to engage meaningfully with the economy,” he says.
Our research shows that refugee entrepreneurs are overcoming the highest imaginable barriers
The most significant barrier to refugee business was often finding adequate start-up capital. On the other hand, the start-ups experienced strong community support from other members of the Hazara community.
Today, refugee entrepreneurship is thoroughly embedded in the Adelaide Hazara community as well as the broader Adelaide community, with a cluster of Hazara businesses centred on Prospect Road transforming the area.
“The major parties – Labor and the Coalition – have introduced policies and legislation embedded in the idea that boat people cannot possibly be part of the nation’s future, cannot play the critically positive role in nation building that 7 million post-war migrants played,” Professor Collins says.
“But our research on the Hazara and other refugee communities shows that refugee entrepreneurs are overcoming the highest imaginable barriers to establish businesses that contribute to the economy and society.”
Rahimi says that success and growth doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s an extremely slow and tiring process, mentally and physically. But I worked very hard.
“I truly believe Australia is the best country in the world, not just because of the opportunities, but because of everything – because of the safety, because of multiculturalism and community life, because of the accepting people, and because of what it means to be an Australian Citizen.”