How to tap the talents of refugees – one student at a time

Mohammed Hassan Mohamud

Mohammed Hassan Mohamud addresses the World Economic Forum at Davos 2019 (WEF, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mike Moradi, Co-Founder & CEO, Sensulin & Lorna Solis, Founder and CEO, Blue Rose Compass & Navrina Singh, Principal Product Lead, Microsoft Corporation


“Why do some people get a passport to move freely and pursue opportunities while others don’t?”

This was a simple question posed by Mohammed Hassan Mohamud as he addressed the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos earlier this year.

Mohammed, a 27-year-old Somali refugee living in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, was one of the Co-Chairs of the Forum’s Annual Meeting this year. He represents the incredible untapped talent within the global population of people with refugee status. His determination to pursue education and connect with the broader world highlights the persistence, intellect and tenacity shared by many displaced youths.

Flying to Davos was the first time Mohammed had left the 13.5 square kilometer camp since he was a child. What made this unique experience challenging was the time-consuming logistical and bureaucratic feat required to arrange Mohammed’s visa and travel to Switzerland, which further illustrates how incredibly hard it is for these youth to access opportunities beyond the camp.

The plight of the displaced

Refugee children have to be as driven and committed as Mohammed to have a chance of overcoming the barriers they face. They are five times as likely to be out of school as their non-refugee peers – because they need to support their families with work or household chores, they don’t speak the local language, they have no money, or they lost their transcripts from their previous school.

Even with large humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR, UNICEF and CARE providing primary and secondary schooling, the dropout rate between primary and secondary for these refugee children is over 50%. Only 1% attend university – and even for them it is a challenge to go on to work legally and be included in society.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. They include tens of millions of children whose talents we are failing to develop. Why are we are ignoring this remarkable potential engine of economic growth, when there are countries with large numbers of jobs to be filled – and when we will need well-trained young people who can rebuild their regions of origin once it is safe for displaced people to return?

Not only refugees are losing out – we all are. Research shows that, given the chance, refugees spur innovation and economic growth. A literature review from Australia finds that refugees gravitate towards entrepreneurship. A study in the United States suggests that the average adult refugee pays taxes that exceed relocation costs and social benefits within 20 years of resettlement – and the younger the refugee, the more likely they are to contribute as much to educational and economic outcomes as their native-born peers.

One student at a time

Mohammed was in Davos because, last July, a group of the World Economic Forum’s community of Young Global Leaders met him when they travelled to Kakuma. They have also created a scholarship fund for Mohammed, in coordination with UNHCR and Blue Rose Compass (BRC), a nonprofit led by Young Global Leader Lorna Solis.

BRC travels to conflict zones in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America to identify young adults – especially, though not exclusively, girls – who have exceptional academic talent and leadership qualities. BRC helps them to apply to top universities and to find work when they graduate. As a diploma is only part of the equation, BRC works hard to get students first-class summer internships and jobs with Fortune 500 companies on graduation.

In line with the above research, BRC consistently finds that the companies say these graduates are among their hardest workers – and universities say their experience is that BRC Scholars enrich the conversations on campus when they talk about their life experiences.

The answer to Mohammed’s question – why millions of talented young people like him do not get passports, while others do – is not that it is fair or sensible. While we must discuss wider policy solutions, we can also act now to create opportunities for people like Mohammed to flourish and be part of society. Only then can we create solutions to this global problem.

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