Born in Somalia, 37-year-old Abbas Hussein Mohamed went from refugee to deputy head of the compliance team at JP Morgan, US.
Back in 2007, in the Dadaab refugee camp in Somalia, Lorna Solis, founder and CEO of the NGO Blue Rose Compass, handed Abbas a scholarship that enabled him to study at Princeton University. Upon graduation in 2011, Abbas left for Germany to do his MBA at German business school EBS, and in 2015 he entered JP Morgan, where he quickly rose to become second in command in the compliance department.
For Solis, it illustrates the opportunities that can be created if refugees are given a hand. After leaving a lucrative position at a top financial firm, the Nicaragua-born executive set up Blue Rose Compass and has adopted an innovative approach to the refugee crisis. She says: “Blue Rose Compass travels to conflict zones globally, with a larger focus on the Middle East due to the current refugee crisis, identifies gifted young refugees — mainly girls — and provides them with education and scholarships to leading universities across the world.”
Solis believes in this camp-to-campus approach and says that “if countries can’t or won’t open their doors, maybe our institutions of knowledge, learning and opportunity can”. The results are astonishing: top universities such as Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Georgetown have started knocking on the doors of Blue Rose Compass to increase their intake of refugees, and international businesses such as Mastercard are eager to offer graduates job opportunities.
“When we heard about the work of Blue Rose Compass, we instantly knew that it was doing something drastically different from the traditional ‘aid’ relationship with refugees,” Sami Lahoud, senior vice-president of acceptance strategy and engagement at Mastercard, says. “Solis introduced us to two of her scholars, Samer and Lina, who were born and grew up in Lebanon but due to their refugee status had very limited employment prospects. We got them hired here at Mastercard and the bet paid off. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
During their studies, refugees are encouraged to work in projects and summer internships that link them back to their region of origin, in the knowledge that they will soon return to help rebuild their communities. After graduating, students commit to repaying 20 percent of their scholarship to Blue Rose and to work in companies either directly in their home country, or ones that are doing business with their home country. “I like the commitment to repaying part of my scholarship” says Mariam AbuItewi, a refugee from Gaza who is currently studying towards a MBA at German business school EBS. “It helps me to find a good job and will give others the opportunity to get a scholarship and achieve their dreams.”
For Mariam, the scholarship came at a crucial crossroads in her life. She trained as a software engineer and set up a small start-up, employing five women who were also refugees. “But I needed training to start something really big. The scholarship is helping me achieve my dream: to set up a company where I can employ many women from Gaza so they can become independent.”
Securing academic scholarships is key, but so is securing government support for students to be granted visas once they have been accepted by universities. This has been a major stumbling block due to the rising stigma towards refugees from host countries. Argentina has recently set an example by granting 1,000 tertiary scholarships to Blue Rose Compass students.
Like many NGOs, Blue Rose Compass depends on the willingness and support of a network of patrons, companies, governments and universities to allow it to keep creating positive change for refugees. In the last eight years, Blue Rose Compass has worked with hundreds of refugees, all of whom have been offered jobs at multinational companies — a great success, for some, but for Solis this number needs to be higher. “With 60 million refugees worldwide, we need to scale up and do much, much more,” she says.
A year ago, Solis decided to go one step further and set up Lynke, a sister company to Blue Rose Compass that trains refugees as application builders and offers outsourcing services to multinationals. Lynke works in coordination with the Jordanian government, and companies such as Microsoft, MasterCard and HP. By the end of 2017, 1,000 workers will have completed their training with Lynke. Solis hopes the bold move by the Jordanian government to allow refugees to work will set an example for how government and the private sector can collaborate.
The work of Blue Rose Compass and Lynke allows a key transformation to take place, according to Solis: “People are beginning to see the global refugee crisis as an opportunity, and refugees as assets and not a burden; as part of the solution and not of the problem. You begin to stitch things together again from the inside. By giving people equal opportunities, no matter where they are from, we can begin to change the world — and even create new businesses while doing so.”