• Mahir Momand, Thrive Refugee Enterprises chief executive and former Afghan refugee. (SBS News)
The chief executive of one of Australia’s newest financial institutions was forced to leave his country not once, but three times to save his life.
By
Kerrie Armstrong

19 Feb - 8:44 AM  UPDATED 20 Feb - 6:15 AM

The last time Mahir Momand left Afghanistan there were shots ringing in his ears.

The microfinancing business he had started in his home country had infuriated the Taliban to such an extent that he was near the top of their hit list.

And someone had tried to tick him off that list.

He was forced to urgently leave the country he loved - for the third time in just 30 years.

Mr Momand has been appointed the chief executive of Thrive Refugee Enterprises, an organisation that will provide microfinancing for refugees starting or expanding their own small businesses in Australia.

"Therefore that program was put under attack by the Taliban."

He told SBS News his microfinancing business in Afghanistan had angered the Taliban because it was interfering in the group’s business model.

“Effectively what we were doing was cutting from the Taliban’s revenues by not allowing farmers to grow opium and we were also cutting from their capacity to recruit insurgents by getting people who didn’t have any jobs to start small businesses so have jobs, and also we were attacking their ideals by working with 50 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, which is women,” he said.

“And therefore that program was put under attack by the Taliban.

“Myself and my colleagues were put on the threat list and a lot of my colleagues got killed, including my international colleagues who arrived in Afghanistan and were helping us with the microfinance program.”

Mahir Momand talks about why the Taliban targeted his business:

Mr Momand was born three years after the Russians invaded Afghanistan and forced him and his family into an extended exile in Pakistan.

“At the time when I was born, my father, who was a senior military general in the Afghanistan army, was put in jail, in prison, by the Russians because he was not on their side,” he said.

“We didn’t have support because the head of the family was not there, and my grandparents had to take us [to] the other side of the border to Pakistan, so I actually became a refugee at the age of one.

“I lived in Pakistan until 2001, so about 19 or 18 years of my life I have spent there as a refugee.”

For a man who would go on to become the head of a complex financial company, his childhood education was a struggle.

“I started working at the age of nine and during nights I would go to school,” he said.

“During the day I would work, which was quite difficult because as a child I could see other Pakistani children in their beautiful uniforms going to school, while in my situation I had to sell things I was supposed to sell during the day and then only go to a refugee school during the nighttime.”

Mr Momand’s father was released after six brutal years imprisoned by the Russians, “having his nails taken out a few times and teeth taken out a few times”.

"Every time our colleagues were captured we would receive threats from the Taliban."

The family eventually moved back to Afghanistan in 2001, after 18 years of living as refugees.

“We went back to Afghanistan just after a few weeks of the American invasion when they overthrew the Taliban in 2001, because we were quite excited we were back to Afghanistan, the country my mum used to tell me very beautiful stories about,” he said.

“We went back to Afghanistan and I started working with the United Nations at that time and then from there I moved on with the World Bank and started that microfinance program.”

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It was the microfinance program that would lead to his second exile from his beloved Afghanistan.

In 2008, pressure and Taliban attacks on himself and his colleagues forced Mr Momand to flee to Canada where he re-evaluated his business.

“When I was in Canada, I was thinking, very naively, the reason I was attacked in Afghanistan was because we were providing loans to people in an unislamic way - we were charging interest - and that was the reason that probably the Taliban attacked us,” he said.

“I thought that there was an Islamic way of doing microfinance, so I went back to Afghanistan and started an Islamic way of providing microfinance, which is very similar, but slightly a different model.

“But because we were still working with those three categories of people and the Taliban still didn’t like it, we used to be called spies of the foreign government, because we had a lot of support from the foreign governments – the US government, the Australian government, European governments.”

The reality of carrying out his work in Afghanistan took its toll as the Taliban once again started picking off his colleagues and staff members one by one.

“I was not only responsible for the operational side of the business, which was quite a large organisation with 1200 employees, 41 credit unions or community banks … I was also responsible for that fact that when every time our colleagues were captured we would receive threats from the Taliban saying if you don’t stop this operation immediately we would kill or slaughter this person, this colleague of yours,” he said.

The horror of seeing the Taliban kill your colleagues one by one:

“While I had started that whole thing it was beyond my power to stop that whole thing.

“How do you stop an operation with 1200 employees and one million people actually directly benefiting from that program and this being a source of survival for them?

“It’s very hard to stop something like that, and therefore, because we couldn’t stop the program, it meant that every time our colleagues got captured we lost them one by one and it was very hard because it was not only an operational burden in management, but it was also a psychological thing - mental pressure - being responsible for people who were losing their lives.”

Because of his continuing activities the Taliban moved Mr Momand and his colleagues into category one – the highest on the hit list.

“During that period of time 17 of [my] colleagues got killed, captured and killed, and in mid to late 2012 I was personally attacked and that led to my immediate evacuation and departure from Afghanistan and I became a refugee for the third time, this time in Australia,” he said.

"When people become economically active that in turn makes way for social integration."

Mr Momand’s new role as the chief executive of Thrive Refugee Enterprises is a return to work he is passionate about.

Thrive, supported by Westpac, Settlement Services International and AMES, will provide microfinancing and business advice to refugees keen to start or expand their own small businesses in Australia.

Mr Momand said Thrive would help its refugee clients in three different ways.

First, the organisation will make sure the potential business owners are aware of the Australian business environment, the regulations and the market for their products or services.

Only after that is a loan granted and once the business is up and running Thrive will provide business mentoring and further advice.

The program will also give refugees the chance to attain the positive credit history they will require to apply for mainstream financial services in the future.

But Mr Momand said he saw the benefits of the program going beyond business and financial matters.

“Not only will we be helping people to become financially self-sustainable and financially independent, which means [they’re] less reliant on government welfare funding, but also when people become economically active that in turn makes way for social integration,” he said.

“I know firsthand when you go as a refugee to a new country you don’t have your family and your friends and probably you don’t speak that language and it can be hard to make those social connections, those human connections that are very important in any person’s life.

How Thrive Refugee Enterprises will help build refugees' businesses:

“By us providing people with microfinance it is not only economically integrating them into the Australian economy, by creating jobs for themselves and hopefully other people, but it’s also a faster way of socially integrating people into the Australian society.”

Mr Momand said many refugees were used to working for themselves in their home countries and were keen to become business owners in Australia.

“There is this big group of people who come with fantastic experience, they bring in skills with them, they’re bringing experience with them, which needs to be translated into the Australian business market by providing them that initial support they need to understand the Australian market,” he said.

And Thrive’s clients are set to benefit from the experience Mr Momand gained providing microfinancing in Afghanistan.

“I always had this view that when I grow up I would like to help people who are in my situation - and there were many, many people who were in that situation."

“Because that was at a much bigger scale we can actually bring those lessons, incorporate them right from the very beginning here in Australia,” he said.

“For example, at the very beginning in Afghanistan we just provided microfinance and the result of that actually shows in the repayment rate.

“If you have lower repayment rates and then there’s bad debts, that tells you that probably some of the businesses we financed didn’t do well and therefore they couldn’t pay back.

“Now here in Australia we want to make sure we … provide them that business support initially to understand the Australian market, to make sure that the products and services that they produce, that there’s a market for it … and only then we lend to them, which means there’ll be less of an issue of repayment and that’s one major lesson that we bring from Afghanistan and include it in the model here.”

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Many may ask why Mr Momand continued to return to Afghanistan and continued to work against the Taliban when his life was on the line.

For him the answer is simple and is influenced by his own history as a refugee.

“I always had this view that when I grow up I would like to help people who are in my situation - and there were many, many people who were in that situation - and I always heard very beautiful stories about Afghanistan from my mum, which I obviously didn’t remember because I had left the country at the age of one,” he said.

“That always had created a desire inside me to go back and help people who were like me, who had similar experiences, to go back and help them.

“And that was the reason I went back to Afghanistan from Pakistan very quickly, and I went back from Canada to Afghanistan, and here in Australia now that I know Thrive will be helping refugees who actually I very much resonate with because two-thirds of my life I lived as a refugee myself.

“It means that I can actually see the results of my work in helping people who have had similar experiences as myself, so that is something that very much motivates me.”

But despite his love for Afghanistan there is little hope he will be able to return any time soon.

"It is very hard," he said.

"I’ve been very close to my mum all my life because the first five or six years of my life I didn’t have a dad, so it was all mum and now I’m away from that, from that very important element of my life.

"Unfortunately the way things are going in Afghanistan in terms of security it is very hard to see that will be sometime soon, but I very much hope for the best.”

What drives Mahir Momand?

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