Ideas from the edge: What refugees can teach us about innovation

Nabi Baquiri at his orchard (photo originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald)

Nabi Baquiri at his orchard (photo originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald)

By Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant

While there are those that are focusing on building walls and isolation, this may come at a great cost. Exposure to different cultural experiences and perspectives has been shown to be a boon for innovation. This is particularly true for people who have been through the experience of seeking asylum.

Most now recognise that people who seek asylum go through horrific circumstance to leave their country. But what they might not realise is that these people often bring with them a wealth of knowledge and unique perspectives. Learning to cope with their changed circumstances also helps refugees develop a great depth and resilience.

These experiences can not only help them overcome adversity as individuals, but when these perspectives are applied in their adopted country they can also help bring fresh insights. They can teach us how we can all improve as a society.

Supporting people seeking asylum is an essential first step to realising these potential benefits.

From surviving to thriving

Take Mohammad al Baqiri, for example. Mohammad is a minority Hazara Afghan refugee who fled violent persecution and came to Australia on a leaky boat. As a child, he was forced to live in appalling conditions in offshore detention centres and experienced a wide range of traumas.

Since coming to Australia after his seven-year long journey as a refugee, Mohammad has achieved a double commerce/law degree, and has since been working on innovative ways to help asylum seekers to get the help they need.

Mohammed is not the only migrant who has been able to adapt to new circumstances and embrace an innovative approach. Forty per cent of Fortune 500 companies in the US have been founded by immigrants and their children.

Insights from shifting cultures

A key element to innovative thinking is using empathy to identify the complexity of the problems people face. This provides a unique insight into how to solve challenges. For someone who has had to seek asylum and shift cultures, it can be easier to see things from multiple points of view.

People who have had broader experiences more easily develop this empathy. They have been found to be more purpose-driven and more successful –  mostly because they have a greater understanding of the reasons why they do what they do.

Empathy is a simple yet potent tool for cultural understanding that takes us beyond our more limited perspectives and into the realm of the possible. By welcoming and providing refugees with the tools they need to realise their unique perspectives, we can all benefit from previously unrecognised insights.

The benefits of enabled optimism

Asylum-seekers can be driven by the knowledge that, in order to change things for the better they need to act. They can bring a powerful optimism that is often missing in more privileged cultures.

These people see setbacks as temporary obstacles and positive learning experiences rather than as indications of failure, which can contrast with a passive fatalistic approach that ‘what will happen will happen’.

Mohammed’s brother Nabi Baquiri, for example, has thrived in the countryside, where he has been working on new ways to grow crops based on his experience back in Afghanistan.

Without being able to draw on past experiences, Mohammed and Nabi may not have been able to make the significant strides they have made. But it will be essential to provide supporting structures to assist with ensuring optimism is enabled and activated.

What’s next?

Where will the best ideas and innovations come from in the future? Some of our best minds might be out there now, on the boats or crossing harsh deserts, on a perilous journey to freedom. They might be living on the fringes of society, challenged by being labelled as outsiders or illegals.

Yet it is their diverse experiences that can really make a difference.

Through supporting refugees as they seek asylum and settle into their new country, we will all have the best opportunity to thrive. 

Gaia Grant

Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley August 2016) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. This article is an adapted excerpt from The Innovation Race. For more information please visit



What can you do?

How is it possible to support people seeking asylum?

Tirian is assisting with coordinating a management and teacher training and development program for a refugee school in Indonesia.

The children from the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre, where Mohammed lived in limbo before being sent to offshore detention centres, are also from families who are waiting to get refugee status from the United Nations or waiting to be resettled. Many of them have been waiting for up to 10 years or more, and during this time they are not permitted to work or get an education. There are more than 14,000 refugees in the same situation in Indonesia. The school was set up by the refugees themselves and has provided this community with a great sense of hope and purpose. You can see more about the school here:

A visit to Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre

Tirian Director Gaia Grant and Refugee Development Coordinator Zoe Grant visiting the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre recently to plan for the management and teacher training development program.

Child of Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre

A child at Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre

What the school needs

Tirian believes that education is a basic human right. Our team –  including Teacher Educator Specialist Robyn Henderson, Refugee Community Development Program Coordinator Zoe Grant, and Tirian Director Gaia Grant –  will be working with the school in April to assist with supporting the often untrained teacher and management teams, and we will be bringing with us much needed teaching resources. As part of the program the school has requested up to $3000 of Maths, Science, Geography and English resources which will greatly enhance the learning experience of the 200 students. Robyn has coordinated a volunteer group to make some simple resources to take, but others need to be purchased. Some examples of equipment requested are dice, counters, maps, science equipment, bean bags, measuring scales etc.

How you can help

There is an opportunity for you to assist with contributing to purchasing the resources needed. If you would like to contribute please go to the school’s website and specify the donation is for ‘Australian Teaching Resources’. Send us your donation information at so we can keep track of the contributions.


We will need to order the materials by March 28, so please send through your donations as soon as possible!

We will post regular updates with photos so you can see what materials we purchase and how they are being used once we are at the school.



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