Apoorva Mittal (BBA’14) recently authored her first book, Refugee Changemakers: From Displaced to Indispensable, which documents the journey of thirteen immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Uganda, Sirrea Leone and Rwanda to the Netherlands. The foreword for the book has been written by Dr Henrik Syse (member of the Norwegian Nobel committee). Two of the stories from the book were also featured in a report by UN Academic Impact and Media Tenor, which was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018.
We caught up with Apoorva to learn more about her journey as an author.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I graduated with a degree in business and finance from SP Jain in 2014; we were the first Global BBA batch! After that, I first worked as a consultant on social sector projects in the field of education and skill development and later as an Engagement Manager for the student community spread across 800 schools and a million students, at a leading educational technology company in New Delhi. While working here, I completed the Stanford Ignite program, an Entrepreneurship and Innovation course by Stanford’s graduate school of business. This program helped me ideate and execute a large-scale student engagement project in the company, which successfully increased student engagement on the platform. Later, in 2017, when I finished writing the stories of refugees, I went to the Creative Writing Summer School at Oxford University, to strengthen my storytelling skills. More recently, I worked with Thrive India, for their media business, where I interviewed leaders in well-being, corporate and academia.
Refugee Changemakers: From Displaced to Indispensable is my first book, which documents the journey of thirteen immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Uganda, Sirrea Leone and Rwanda to the Netherlands.
As someone with a business background, how did you decide to become a full-time author?
Managing student engagement vertical at an education tech company, I decided it was time to take my career to the next level. Before pursuing a higher education degree, I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was doing it for the right reason. Despite having a business background, I was not sure if MBA was the right next step for me. To find out what excites me, I started discovering my likes and dislikes. Taking small steps like creating a travel blog helped me find out that I had a natural love of writing. With encouragement from parents, I developed confidence in my writing skills and decided to make a complete and drastic (in some people’s opinion) career switch.
Could you tell us a bit about your book and how you decided to write on this subject?
Let me start with my post graduation journey. I was a consultant for social sector enterprises and later became the Strategy and Student Engagement Manager at an education technology company. After a series of personal incidents, where my family had a brush with the 2016 attacks in Brussels and Paris, my attention increasingly started going towards misreporting on refugees in the media. Around this time, I read peace proposals by Dr Daisaku Ikeda to the UN in which he proposes concrete solutions to global issues. Inspired by Dr Daisaku Ikeda’s peace proposals recommending refugees to work in fields that contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals in their host communities, I decided to uncover and write stories about refugees contributing to their host communities. I hoped to contribute to a balanced narrative on refugees.
Refugee Changemakers: From Displaced to Indispensable documents the journey of thirteen refugees from Syria, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda to the Netherlands. Each of these refugees are connected by their shared goal of leading a life of value and contributing to their host community. Some of them are even contributing to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2030, as demonstrated by their work in the Netherlands.
Many of the stories I have written about in Refugee Changemakers honour Dr Ikeda’s vision. After reading them, it can be clear to anyone that by contributing to the growth of their host society, refugees are leading a mutually beneficial and dignified life.
In documenting the lives of these refugees, each of whom is between twenty-four and forty, the stories focus on how they turned their life around through sheer willpower, persistence, and self-motivation despite the horrors they had faced at home and on their journey to the Netherlands.
The purpose of these stories is not only to inspire the readers but also to change the perception of refugees as consumers of resources to that of contributors to society.
After finishing the book, I decided to pursue journalism – starting my master’s this fall at Northwestern University – so that I could report on vulnerable communities, misunderstood and disparaged, who are victims of stereotyping and therefore give voices to the stories which are mostly ignored. Today more than ever, when the feeling of otherness is rampant, I believe storytelling can bridge the gap in our hearts and minds.
Does your educational background help you in this path?
Definitely! Being a first-time author is extremely tough, there is a lot of competition. My business background helps me understand and manage the marketing and sales aspect of this journey.
Could you tell about any major achievement you’ve achieved in this field?
January this year, 2 stories from my book were published in an Integration Index report by Media Tenor and United Nation Academic Impact. This report was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the special event for UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Its contributors include Under Sec General UN, Mayor of Heidelberg, and Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
I spoke at the media panel this July at the Refugee Forum by R-Venture foundation. There I met Dr Henrik Syse, member of Norwegian Nobel committee which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. After his keynote, I was convinced that he was the person who understood how storytelling can uplift the refugee community. I am grateful that he wrote the foreword for my book… That gave major credibility to the stories of changemakers in my book.
How did you collate the 13 real-life stories? What challenges did you face along the way?
Last summer, I moved to Amsterdam and started contacting NGOs working with refugees. With no contacts in a new country, I had to work on building my network from scratch. I approached organisations integrating refugees in their new country through skill development and language training, providing opportunities and organising initiatives to promote peace activities and promote dialogue. They connected me with refugees whom they have worked with. People encouraged me and strengthened my belief that telling these stories was crucial. By first interviewing the refugees over the phone, I better understood their stories and made them feel comfortable with the process. I convinced an East African refugee to participate by explaining that he did not need to recount the atrocities he had witnessed.
Being sensitive to their plight, I conducted detailed interviews lasting several hours.
Breaking apprehension of locals and creating role model refugees could inspire hope. I met, connected and interviewed every person myself even visiting some of their workplaces. It was truly an enriching and humbling experience.
Is there anything you wish to tell the current students of SP Jain?
“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent Van Gogh