Seeding Hope in Uncertainty: Empowering Refugee Businesses

Talenpac helps to develop refugees’ talents in Malaysia, equipping them with skills to run thriving businesses.

Razieh has a degree in pharmacology and physiotherapy, but she’s yet to secure a professional job in Malaysia, to which she fled with her family from the Middle East to escape personal hardship. “In the first months here, we had neither work nor work permit,” recounts the 42-year-old refugee. 

This is a common challenge faced by close to 190,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. These individuals aren’t legally recognised by the country and are therefore unable to work or attend government schools. Here, in this space of uncertainty, they live their lives in limbo while awaiting resettlement, a process that is not guaranteed.

With dwindling cash reserves, Razieh started a home-based business selling herbal medicine. But her venture came with painful lessons. “The first time I imported organic honey, it spilled when I brought it in the taxi. My entire capital was lost,” she recounts.

Then in 2021, the mother of a teenage daughter discovered Talenpac, a social enterprise that runs a free micro entrepreneurship programme for refugees. Over the course of five months, refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia meet weekly to brainstorm ideas and develop skills needed to run a business. Besides these  workshops, they also attend individual coaching sessions that are tailored to their business needs. “There’s a misconception that refugees are all poor and illiterate, just desperate for work. But you’ll find that they come from all walks of life, including educated doctors, dentists and lawyers who find themselves in (a difficult) position,” explains Charu Agarwal, the co-founder of Talenpac. A lawyer by training, she started the social enterprise to help promote economic self-sufficiency among refugees based in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, many of whom face challenges such as language barriers, discrimination and the lack of legal recourse. 

“We try to find a way for them to do something in the safety of their homes, where they're not breaking any laws. They can do something with the skills they have, and serve their community.”

Among those who have benefitted from Talenpac’s support is Razieh, who has expanded her business using a grant disbursed by the non-profit. Besides purchasing a refrigerator for her perishable goods, she also sells household items alongside her herbal remedies. “Her profit almost doubled from what it was when she first joined the programme,” shares Charu, who maintains a close relationship with the programme’s alumni.

She can now afford her family’s expenses, including her daughter’s tuition fees and her husband’s medical bills.

"There’s a misconception that refugees are all poor and illiterate,  just desperate for work. But you’ll find that they come from all walks of life, including educated doctors, dentists and lawyers who find themselves in (a difficult) position"

Charu, co-founder, Talenpac 


Today, Razieh pays it forward by motivating her counterparts. Addressing a classroom full of Talenpac’s new intakes, she encourages them to make the most of the courses to earn a livelihood. “You may not believe it, but I started my business with only RM300 (US$64). But the workshop helped me alot, especially in relation to customer service.” Since its establishment in 2018, Talenpac has helped more than 200 refugees start or grow their businesses, reporting an average income increase of RM400 (US$85) per person. And Charu has witnessed how this has impacted individuals in the community. 

“The women say, ‘I have a sense of purpose now, it doesn't matter that my business is generating a couple of hundred ringgit a month. I'm not just sitting at home waiting to be resettled. I am now doing something with my skills,” concludes Charu.

About Talenpac

Talenpac is a Malaysian NGO that empowers refugees by designing and delivering programmes that equip them with skills to build their own businesses, thus living in self-sufficiency and dignity while awaiting resettlement.


Director & Camera & Editor

Stephanie Theresa

Producer & Writer

Jeanette Lim

Assistant Producer

Terese Lim


Tan Yee Wei


Sara Ahmadi

Executive Producer

Victor Tang