This man has been honoured for helping refugees and migrants launch their own start-ups

Usman Iftikhar portrait. Source: Supplied.

Inspired by his own personal experience as a migrant, Usman Iftikhar wants to help others create their own employment. Now his work is being recognised as he attends the Obama Foundation Leadership program.

Usman Iftikhar moved to Australia from Pakistan in 2013.

The 29-year-old came to Australia to complete his master’s degree, but - when he couldn’t find employment - he realised that many migrants like him were facing similar challenges.

This led him to co-found Catalysr, which is a social enterprise designed to help migrant and refugee entrepreneurs create their own startup.

After receiving the Commonwealth Young Person of the year award in 2018, Mr Iftikhar is now joining other Australian leaders in Kuala Lumpur - as a delegate for the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program.

Mr Iftikhar told SBS News he decided to co-found Catalysr and provide support to refugees or migrants, after receiving advice from one of his mentors in Parramatta's School for Social Entrepreneurs - where he was a student.

“I got this advice from one of my mentors that ‘you try and solve a problem you have personally faced.’ And for me, that was a critical moment where I have personally faced an issue of unemployment and underemployment that a lot of other immigrants and refugees have faced,” he said.

Catalysr 2019 cohort
Catalysr 2019 cohort

Mr Iftikhar said he is determined to decrease the number of migrants facing unemployment or underemployment, with the number disproportionately high compared to the general population. 

"I found that 65 per cent of migrants and refugees are either unemployed or underemployed in Australia in their first five years of being here. That’s a massive statistic when you compare it to the general population," he said. 

In the three-and-a-half years since it began, Catalysr's initial pilot program - of just 10 refugees per cohort - has increased to support 80 people through a cohort and has assisted over 180 migrants and refugees.

The company has helped start over 50 businesses, varying from food and retail to artificial intelligence companies.

City of Parramatta Council Lord Mayor Bob Dwyer said the program "has made a huge contribution to the Parramatta community and empowered numerous migrant and refugee entrepreneurs from Western Sydney."

The City of Parramatta Council provided Catalysr with funding through a series of programs and grants, including the Social Investment Program, Community Grants Program, Stronger Communities Fund, and Pitch For Good Parramatta event.

Mr Iftikhar said working with a diverse community is inspiring and encourages the business to help create a more inclusive society.

“We feel pretty privileged to work with so many different people from so many different countries, and the reason we do that is to make sure we can create employee opportunities, not just for migrant refugees but also for the general society,” he said.

He said cohesion and mutual understanding is vital to promote a more fair and productive society.

“I believe in inclusion, in cohesion and integration in a way that actually values everyone in society. So no matter where you come from, what your background is, what your abilities are, all of that everyone should feel included and have the opportunity to participate,” he said.

Now, his work is being recognised as he attends the Obama Foundation leadership summit, as one of fourteen Australian leaders. 

The Obama Foundation program joins two hundred leaders from 33 nations across the Asia-Pacific region.

It will be hosted by former President of the United States, Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama.

High profile speakers at the program include Academy Award-winning actor Julia Roberts, Air Asia co-founder Tan Sri Dr Tony Fernandes, and Obama Foundation consultant Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng. 

Mr Iftikhar said he’s looking forward to the experience, as he believes it will bring people together from the Asia-Pacific region to discuss some of the most pressing local issues.

“Look at how we can work together and try to create the change we all want. Especially at a time where we have some massive global problems, we’re facing, and we need to collaborate,” he said.

He said the two biggest issues for him are climate change, and the global refugee crisis, which he believes go hand-in-hand.

“There’s also some research that suggests that climate change is going to massively impact the global refugee crisis. Right now we have about 22 million refugees globally, but we could have up to 2 billion by the end of the century,” he said.

He said he believes the Obama foundation will provide many leaders with a chance to understand how to work with one another to face the issues facing the world.

“I want to use this opportunity to meet other leaders, find common ground and try to see how we can collaborate to face up to these massive challenges we have coming up in the future,” he said.

The summit begins this Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

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