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Former asylum seeker uses her UEL degree to help migrant entrepreneurs

business management

Indira Kartallozi combines a love of entrepreneurship with her personal experiences supporting refugees 

Twenty-five years ago, Indira Kartallozi (picture above) fled her home country of Kosovo with her husband and newborn son. 

They feared government reprisals under then-President Slobodan Milošević, in revenge for Indira’s role in protests against state harassment and brutality.

They eventually arrived in England via Bulgaria, though it took six long years before the UK government approved their applications for asylum and they could ‘feel at home’. 

But today, Indira has a master’s degree in Refugee Studies from the University of East London (UEL). This year she founded social enterprise Migrant Entrepreneurs International (MEI), where she is also co-director.

She said, “At MEI we’re working to recognise the positive contribution of migrant entrepreneurs around the world and to help migrant communities become responsible entrepreneurs.

“My whole adult life has been that of an activist, asylum seeker, and in roles supporting refugees and asylum seekers, so this new venture is the fruit of all those experiences, starting with my own 25 years ago.”

MEI projects include an entrepreneurship academy, an award scheme to recognise outstanding migrant entrepreneurs, and a mentoring programme to match experienced business professionals with aspiring migrant entrepreneurs.

Indira, who now lives in Cambridge, said her own story has shaped her as a person and entrepreneur. 

She said, “I’m Kosovan, and grew up in Yugoslavia. Following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Milošević responded to moves by Kosovans for independence by launching a crackdown on the territory's ethnic Albanian population.

“I was a student activist against the oppression of the government. But there were risks –political opponents and student activists became targets.” 

After leading a protest against the killing of two people considered government opponents in her home town of Peja, Indira no longer felt safe.

She said, “It was then that I felt I really needed to flee, I was too much in the crosshairs of the government, and I feared for my son’s future."

While waiting for her family’s asylum applications to be approved by the British government, Indira, who speaks several Balkan languages, started working as an interpreter. She volunteered hundreds of hours in a variety of roles that put her language skills and life experience to good use. 

She said, “The Home Office was getting a lot of asylum applicants because of the Balkan conflict, so I could empathise with those arriving, and had the languages to help them communicate."

Finally, the family’s asylum applications were approved.

She said, “Then came the period of finally becoming British, possessing not just a certificate but the feeling of ‘being at home.’ I’m British and I’m Kosovan, and I tell my kids, ‘Be proud of who you are, you’re both of these.’”

She moved into a paid job as a case adviser for refugees and asylum seekers with charity ‘Christian Action and Response In Society’, eventually becoming a senior advice worker.

Thanks to some supportive but also ‘by chance’ conversations, Indira heard about UEL’s MA Refugee Studies programme and decided to apply. She had previously earned a bachelor’s degree in then-Yugoslavia.

She said, “I had so much life experience when it came to refugees and asylum seekers. I’d volunteered and now worked for them, so doing an advanced degree seemed like an opportunity to reflect on and share that, and learn more about the lives and issues facing refugees around the world."

Indira studied part-time from 2011-2013, graduating with a distinction. It was during her studies, in 2012, that she decided to leave her full-time work role and start her own company. Chrysalis Family Futures provided training and education courses, and supported projects which protect the rights of marginalised families and children.  

She said, “As my interests and experience developed, I could see new opportunities and needs arising.

“I decided to close Chrysalis Family Future this year to free-up resources to found Migrant Entrepreneurs International. MEI is under the umbrella of a Cambridge-based think tank called Kaleidoscope Futures, which focuses on leadership, sustainability and social responsibility." 

Indira is positive about the contribution her time at UEL has made to her career and goals.

She said, “My life experience and studies at UEL really opened my mind to the world, which complemented my career, so my advice is to open your mind to the world’s problems and think about the solutions you can bring. 

“At UEL I came to realise that meeting refugees is a way of meeting the whole world.”