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‘I still have nightmares’: How 9 days on a people smuggler’s boat changed this CEO

Hedayat Osyan appears on the Yahoo Finance The New Investors series. Image: Yahoo Finance

In 2010, Hedayat Osyan boarded a rickety boat in Jakarta, packed with terrified families and crying children. 

Just one month earlier, a close friend of his had boarded a similar boat with the same destination: Australia. 

But his friend – along with the other 64 people on that small boat – never made it, Osyan told Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief and New Investors: My Story host Sarah O’Carroll.

Still, then-17-year-old Osyan boarded that fragile boat so similar to the one his friend had perished on weeks earlier.

He had no choice. 

Fleeing Afghanistan

CHRISTMAS ISLAND - OCTOBER 13: Suspected asylum seekers arrive at Christmas Island, after receiving assistance by Australian Navy, on October 13, 2012 on Christmas Island. Reports suggest that a vessel was spotted by an RAAF maritime patrol plane, and HMAS Bundaberg and HMAS Wollongong assisted with the transfer. (Photo by Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

As a member of the Shia Muslim minority in Afghanistan, Osyan’s high school teacher father had been kidnapped in 2006, leaving Osyan to provide for his mother and siblings. With Afghanistan’s male-dominated society, the caregiver duty fell upon Osyan – women weren’t even allowed outside without a man accompanying them.

‘You have to run away. I don’t want you to be like your dad... We have no idea what happened to him.’

And with a growing Taliban presence, the Osyan family’s Shia beliefs and Hazara heritage were also placing them at an even greater risk. As a young man, Osyan himself was in grave danger. 

In 2009 his village was attacked, leaving his mother begging him to flee. 

“You have to run away,” he remembers his mother saying. “I don't want you to be like your dad... We have no idea what happened to him.

“I don't want this to happen to you.”

That night, Osyan fled to Kabul, then to Dubai, Malaysia and ultimately to Jakarta where he was told that it could take 10 years for his asylum claim to be processed – 10 years where Osyan would struggle to provide for his mother and small siblings.

So Osyan got on that treacherous boat.

And nearly 10 years later, he’s still having nightmares. 

From then to now

Sudanese refugee families living in tents near Jakarta's UNHCR headquarters to protest their resettlement delays in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 6, 2019. Indonesia is home to about 14,000 refugees. Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia are one of the biggest groups of refugees in Indonesia. Afghan Hazaras, who represent a significant number of arrivals to Indonesia, hoping to arrange onward passage to Australia, face many of the same difficulties that other asylum seekers and refugees do. However, they are a particularly vulnerable population given their religious minority status. (Photo by Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Osyan, now the founder and CEO of tiling company and refugee employment service Nick Tiling, says that nine-day journey has galvanised his purpose. 

“I feel like this is my second life because I thought that journey was going to be the last day,” he said.

‘We were treated like criminals - when the only crime had been to seek stability in a time of chaos.’

After three traumatic months at Christmas Island’s detention centre, Osyan was deemed a legitimate refugee and granted a permanent visa. He learnt English with a goal of entering politics, to advocate on behalf of refugees like him who he believes were “treated like criminals” on Christmas Island. 

“We had limited access to food, physical activity and we were treated like criminals – when the only crime had been to seek stability in a time of chaos,” he told Yahoo Finance.

CHRISTMAS ISLAND - JULY 26: Asylum seekers and facilities at Christmas Island Detention Centre, on July 26, 2013 on Christmas Island. (Photo by Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

But in between finishing his honours degree in 2016 and beginning his PhD, he took on a construction job to save some money to support himself and his family.

During that two-month period, he discovered refugees and asylum seekers were being exploited, often due to their poor English and lack of support.

He also discovered that there were many refugees who wanted to work but felt held back by social barriers and a lack of government support. 

From then, Hedayat’s goal shifted from politics to building a social enterprise to help people like him. 

Nick Tiling was born

Hedayat Osyan appears on the Yahoo Finance The New Investors show with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Sarah O'Carroll. Image: Yahoo Finance

Osyan believes work and feeling like a contributing member of society is critical for personal happiness.

“Secure and sustainable employment is a vital part of resettlement,” Osyan said. 

“If the government really wants to get the benefit from refugees and asylum seekers, they should invest a lot of time from the beginning, to help refugees and asylum seekers integrate into mainstream society.

‘There’s a lot of aspiring people from refugee backgrounds.’

“I established Nick Tiling to provide a safe platform for [refugees and asylum seekers], where they can train, employ and contribute to society.”

The company does tiling, painting, bricklaying and air conditioning, with Osyan prioritising refugee job-seekers. 

Those who land the job receive the work, but also receive training to become recognised professionals and are also taught English. 

Since 2017, he’s trained and employed more than 40 refugees and completed more than 50 projects. 

“There's a lot of aspiring people from refugee backgrounds,” Osyan said. 

“I'm really motivated to change this stereotype that refugees and asylum seekers are a burden to society, they are bad people, they are not contributing to society. 

“I want to change this stereotype. We are motivated, we all want to make a positive contribution if we have equal opportunity in the society.”

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