Putting it in Perspective: Refugees Becoming Successful Businesswomen

Posted by Jenny Fernandez on Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 16:00 pm

As a junior at American University studying both international relations and business administration, I am constantly looking for ways to apply both aspects of my education to my internships. Throughout my time at HIAS, I have been given opportunities to attend meetings on Capitol Hill, at the Washington Times, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and many other incredible places to hear the latest discussions on a variety of current events. Attending these hearings, I noticed that no matter what the overarching topic was – urban migration, international religious freedom, sexual violence, or human rights – speakers not only identified women as a vulnerable population, but also as avenues for business ventures, entrepreneurship, and social advancement and involvement. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon once said that “investing in women is not only the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.” As a woman currently in business school, I paid special attention to how women, particularly refugee women, are increasingly participating in the business world and advancing the place of women in the global business environment.

Women are seen as among the most vulnerable refugees. Traditionally, and especially in developing countries, women are tasked with collecting water and wood for cooking. Women have to walk long distances and far from their town or village in order to do so, which too often leaves many women vulnerable to attacks. Specifically in refugee camps, women are targets of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and many enter into abusive relationships in order to be able to provide for their families. In many cases, women bring their children to refugee camps after their husbands have died, stayed in the home country, or were left behind. As sources of income are limited in refugee camps, many women turn to remarrying in order to support their families. These situations often turn abusive and dangerous for struggling refugee women.

However, I also discovered that women are generally the most willing to find work, to step out of their traditional roles as defined by patriarchal societies, and to create new and often innovative ways to gain income and support their families. For example, in refugee camps, women have been trained to use solar cookers instead of wood fire pits to cook meals. Smoke from wood cookers damages the health of the women who use them and negatively impact the environment. Solar cookers are environmentally and economically more efficient, better for one’s health, and decrease the need for women to walk long distances to gather wood. Although most women in refugee camps have never been exposed to advanced technology, many are eagerly willing to overcome the culture shock and take advantage of the new opportunity to care for their families.

Refugee women in camps are not the only ones to step out of traditional boundaries and engage in new opportunities and skill sets. Resettled refugee women, particularly those in the United States, start businesses in countless sectors, including the food industry, the clothing industry, graphic design, and education. They continuously take advantage of leadership and training opportunities, and are frequently key players in helping to organize and engage the resettled refugees within the community.

As a woman studying business, I have often heard of the “glass ceiling” that women face in advancing in the corporate world. However, I am realizing that if refugee women who have come from very difficult situations and have sometimes lost everything are increasing their participation in the business world in leaps and bounds, then all women should be able to draw from their motivation and do the same. Through my research I have come to understand that although refugee women learn from us through training and leadership programs, we should also strive to learn from their initiative, motivation, and determination. Refugee women may be classified as vulnerable, but they are a valuable and successful element of whichever community they become a part.

Comments (1)

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Posted by Gabby on December 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Dear Ray: I can't comment on the hatelh club issue, but I did want to say that I think medical refugee is something of a misnomer. While it's true many US patients feel they have no choice but to flee abroad for care, it's also the case that many un- and underinsured patients seek treatment overseas simply because it's better, or because procedures that are offered in Europe and Asia are not available in the United States (such as the popular Birmingham Hip Resurfacing procedure). Many Americans are heading overseas out of choice, not desperation.