Born in 1988 in Somalia, Yasin Abdi Jama is the founder of the Réseau des Exilés de France (REF), a charitable network whose goal is to help asylum seekers become a part of French society and accomplish their administrative tasks.
Hello Yasin, thank you for answering our questions. Would you tell us about your past before you arrived in France?
I was born in Somalia and I studied economics in Kampala (Uganda) from 2008 to 2010. Before that, I lived in Dubai for a year to perfect my Arabic language skills. Then I went to medical school in China. I arrived in France in December 2016 as an asylum seeker.
Tell us about your project, the Réseau des Exilés de France. How was it born?
When I arrived in Paris, I didn’t know how to find housing, French classes, or help with my application for asylum. For a few months I was living on the street. This experience taught me a lot. Using what I learned and observed, I created the Réseau des Exilés de France, to help other asylum seekers feel less alone when they arrive in Paris.
The organization’s goal is to support newly arrived immigrants’ integration into French society and the job market. These people are engineers, professors, teachers with useful skills to pass on to others, but who lack the resources or confidence necessary to reach them.
How did you hear about the Ment Programme?
When I arrived in Paris as an asylum seeker, I didn’t know anyone. As an undocumented worker, I couldn’t practice medicine or work at all. I did, however, want to do something and become a part of French society.
Then I got the idea to create the Réseau des Exilées de France, a network helping refugees and asylum seekers. While conducting online research, I discovered the MEnt Programme , as well as makesense, who assisted me with my project.
Why did you choose entrepreneurship?
It was more of a discovery than a choice. At first, I wanted to create a network to help refugees overcome the legal and social hurdles they encounter on their path to integrating French society. As an asylum seeker, it takes 1-2 years to become documented, during which time I was unable to work.
Through the Ment Programme, I was able to develop my project and gain access to a workspace, WiFi, valuable contacts to build my project…and coffee!
This program allowed me to grow my network in a positive, constructive environment. Entrepreneurship has been a way for me to be active in society, despite my status.
What difficulties did you encounter?
I encountered 4 main types of difficulties: 1. The bare minimum.
When I arrived in Paris, I didn’t know anyone and only had 75€ in my pocket. I didn’t know who to turn to to find housing or start a project. So, my first goal was to meet people who were willing to help me.
2. Living conditions.
When I wanted to develop my project, I was living in a shelter in poor conditions. I didn’t have internet access or a computer to do research on. I spent my time in libraries to use the Internet and enjoy a hot coffee. Once I was selected by the Ment Programme, I was able to enjoy proper working conditions.
3. A network.
When I wanted to launch my network, I didn’t have the necessary resources to hire volunteers, or to meet people who could help me with my project. Plus, my French wasn’t very good! My advice? “Talk to people, talk to locals, talk to the right people…just talk”.
Once I had outlined my project, I wanted to launch a crowdfunding campaign. I had to wait 6 months for a bank to let me open an account, using my temporary ‘récépissé’ as a sort of identification.
What are the next steps in your project?
The Réseau des Exilés de France is currently undergoing a total reorganization. The first goal was to provide information to asylum seekers and give them the opportunity to be active in French society. This goal is particularly important to me. Today, the REF has provided assistance to over 1,000 people.
Over the next few years, our goal is to develop a network of aid organizations created and run by refugees. We’ve already recruited a dozen. Besides this network, the goal is to take action to help newly arrived immigrants, led by immigrants and refugees who have already arrived in France. With these actions, they become part of the solution and are able to make their voices heard in processes and measures which affect their lives.
All of these initiatives will contribute to improving the conditions under which immigrants and refugees are welcomed into French society, as well as their confidence and marketability.
Personally speaking, I was granted refugee status a year ago. I hope to obtain French citizenship by the end of the year, or early 2020.
Do you think you’ll practice medicine in France someday?
I don’t know, I don’t think so… After I arrived in Paris, I could have gotten my medical degree after 2 years of residency. But for that, I would have had to get refugee status, a process which takes about 2 years.
During the summer of 2014, I couldn’t go back to Somalia, so I spent a lot of time at home, on my computer. One thing led to another, and I became a developer in October of that year.
To be honest, I’m passionate about two things: foreign languages and technology. Today, I’m a freelance web developer and I work as an interpreter for the SAMU Social. I’m not interested in medicine anymore.
Many thanks to Yasin for answering our questions.
 MEnt programme: An incubation program which offers migrants and refugees of all nationalities assistance in getting entrepreneurship project started; one of FAIRES’s partners.