“Sooner or later, whether we want it or not, we will have diversity in every corner of the world”
An interview with Indira Kartallozi, founder of the Migrant Entrepreneurs’ Network
I recently interviewed Indira for Humans On Purpose, a blog run by On Purpose associates that explores purpose-led careers and the people who build them. Indira’s story is so captivating that I decided to publish the full version of the interview here.
When I was growing up [in Kosovo] and thinking what I might do with my future, I initially thought of being an architect. At school I was good at creating little houses, from cartons and things. But growing up in a country where the female was still secondary, when I expressed that idea to my father he said ‘Oh no, that’s not a career for women’. I was quite creative in writing and reading a lot and my mother said to me ‘Well, why don’t you study language? So that’s how I ended up studying Albanian language and literature.
Having had to stop my studies and leave the country [during the war in Kosovo]… now I wasn’t looking at my career and profession but how do I survive in a new country, how do I cope with all the issues of resettling in a new environment? Somehow those thoughts and dreams and hopes go away, they do not become a priority. At the time I was a mother as well, my son was ten months old. So my priority was for him to be safe. And for me to be able to work and survive.
“Being a refugee at that time truly has affected the way I think about myself, my identity.”
Being a refugee at that time truly has affected the way I think about myself, my identity. Back home, I was respected and praised for the things I did. In the UK I lacked that. I didn’t have any of that praise, even though I was working hard. That changed me, in a way. In the UK, although you feel safe — I had a few friends, I could speak English — the fact that you are not free to pursue your hopes and dreams, it damages your identity.
The settling, the resettling, being in a state of not knowing… Back then I was still hoping to go back to Kosovo, thinking that the situation would improve. During that period you just feel in limbo. And then you realise six years have gone by and I was still living in limbo. I had to make a decision: whether this was going to be home, or should I go back. By then I had my second boy, and I had to make that decision for the sake of my children. In my head, I decided that this would by my home and I’ll do anything to make this home. That’s when I started thinking differently.
“In my head, I decided that this would by my home and I’ll do anything to make this home. That’s when I started thinking differently.”
So I started thinking, what do I need to do now to progress my career? By then, I was working as an interpreter. I spoke English, Serbian and Albanian and it was very easy for me to earn a living because the need for languages was quite high at the time, due to the war in the Balkans.
That put me in front of helping refugees. Initially as an interpreter, the role is quite impartial. You cannot engage into any emotional or practical things that are going on. But then I found myself often wanting to be that person who gives the advice, because I felt ‘I’ve been through this myself, I should be able to advise people on what they need to do.’ Very simple things: where to go, where to get jobs, how to approach people and things like that.
Gradually I trained myself to become an advocate and generalist advice worker and that’s how I started my career in this way. I continued to work with refugees and advise them on their legal rights. It gave me that satisfaction of being able to empower people and become a voice, because I related so closely with their needs.
There’ve been many occasions where I’ve put myself in front, regardless of the risks. Before coming to the UK I was quite active in protests against the oppression. A few days before International Women’s Day there was this particular neighbour who was shot by snipers just outside in front of his door. That’s what was happening in Peja, where I was living at the time, and the whole population was very angry about an innocent civilian being shot in front of his door.
The next day there was a peaceful protest on International Women’s Day — there were older women, younger women, all the women that I knew in Peja were there. We gathered in this point near the park. On the other side of the bridge there were riot police with water tanks, waiting, not wanting to allow us to pass through the main street.
“No one was able to go in front and say ‘Right, we’re going now’. So, I took that step and decided to lead the women into the protest.”
It was a difficult situation because people were scared and we didn’t know what was going to happen. There had been cases where people were shot before and no one was able to go in front and say ‘Right, we’re going now’. So, I took that step and I decided to lead the women. I was angry and frustrated at what was going on, and not just the anger of this person being shot but anger that had accumulated for a few years. I stepped up and led this group of women into the protest.
Luckily there were no attacks, we were allowed to cross and the protest was without any incidents. But I do remember that fear. Not fear for myself, but for the others who followed. If something happened to them, what would I feel? The sense of responsibility. I would never do that now, but back then, I think, being younger you’re braver…
I think it’s just who I am. I was brought up in a society that was not equal. It bothered me quite a lot that I was a female and not treated the same as any other male. I was brought up in a family of four girls and two boys and priorities were given to my brothers. I hated to be called a tomboy because I was just a girl who was interested in things like sport and hiking.
Even in the communist times when things were fine and I was growing up in a very stress-free environment, I would always tend to help those in need, even when I was a child. Sometimes stealing from my home to take food to the neighbour who was struggling to feed her children. I think that’s who I was generally as a person, to be helping and wanting a more equal society.
Migrant Entrepreneurs Network came out of the build of frustrations how migrants are treated worldwide. Throughout the years that I’ve been a refugee and asylum seeker I hated that often I’ve been pitied and seen as a victim rather than someone who is a survivor or is able to work and earn a living.
“People don’t pay enough attention to what refugees achieve in life and what they’ve done for the country where they live.”
Seeing the refugee crisis and seeing migrants who are extremely capable of surviving under such extreme circumstances. People don’t pay enough attention to what they achieve in life and what they’ve done for the country where they live. In spite of building their lives from zero and getting to where they own very successful businesses, and not only successful but socially responsible businesses.
What motivates me to get out of bed in the morning? I think it’s probably the light… by which I mean this hope that I have every morning when I wake up, which is created by this freedom of being at home, being free, being alive, being healthy, fit, and being able to choose what I want to do with my day and how I want to spend it. And knowing that whatever I work on each day will bring something new — and I often don’t know what, but that’s the whole excitement.
I like to think that every little thing that I write, or I say, or I work on brings an impact. Luckily, I’m circled with individuals and people who are inspiring and like-minded: a group of people who want to change the world. I like to think of myself as part of this circle and that there are circles like this everywhere in the world, and they are growing. I think that through my daily work, whatever I do, I add to this circle of individuals who have a purpose to change the world for better.
“I want people to treat refugees as normal human beings, to the point where I almost wish there was no labelling at all.”
I want to change the way how people perceive refugees. I want people to treat refugees as normal human beings, to the point where I almost wish there was no labelling at all. I want people to treat refugees with respect, not pity, and to treat people with dignity. I want people to understand that the world is changing and sooner or later, whether we want it or not, we will have diversity in every corner of the world. And the sooner we start treating people with respect, the better.
Indira Kartallozi is a social entrepreneur, educator, human rights activist and forced migration expert. She is the founder of Chrysalis Family Futures, a social enterprise working with vulnerable and marginalized families, and the Migrant Entrepreneurs Network, an organization that connects, supports and develops migrant entrepreneurs worldwide.
To join the Migrant Entrepreneurs Network as an entrepreneur, offer your services as an expert or support the organization as a corporate partner please visit the site’s membership page.