Nathanaël Molle
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   France

Nathanaël Molle

In the last few decades, France, like many other developed countries, has faced an increasing number of refugees fleeing war or political persecution in their countries. Exploring the untapped…
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Nathanaël Molle is on leave from the Ashoka Fellowship. For more information on his status, please contact [email protected].

This description of Nathanaël Molle's work was prepared when Nathanaël Molle was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


In the last few decades, France, like many other developed countries, has faced an increasing number of refugees fleeing war or political persecution in their countries. Exploring the untapped potential of refugee populations long stigmatized and marginalized by their host countries, Nathanaël Molle is helping refugees launch ventures and to become powerful ambassadors for the contributions that refugees can make to society. Investing in entrepreneurial personalities, he builds a network of ambassadors that highlights the economic value of refugees and acts as a stepping stone for large and collective social integration.

The New Idea

Nathanaël is changing minds about the value of refugees in society and helping refugees surmount the challenges of integration without money, networks, or academic recognition while carrying a strong negative image as “burdens to society."

To deeply transform the perception of refugees in French society, he highlights a group of talented and well-integrated refugee ambassadors, and showcases them as living forces for society who can create and bring economic and social value. This unique approach invigorates and empowers refugees to become entrepreneurs and provides support they need to launch ventures, positively reshaping the “refugee image” based on their talents and what they can bring economically, socially and culturally.

Nathanaël also cultivates citizens empowered to facilitate the integration of refugees. From French language courses to cultural code-learning and professional networks access, this growing group of volunteers plays a major role in putting an end to refugees’ deep isolation. Through cultural events and social networks, Nathanaël succeeds in mobilizing dozens of people removed from the daily life of refugees and transforming them into strongly committed local ambassadors, dedicating their time on a weekly basis and engaging their networks to multiply the number of reference points for refugees.

To build the right ecosystem for refugee integration, Nathanaël positions his organization Singa as an innovation lab that works closely with traditional actors – from citizen organizations to public institutions – to change their practices. Advising the Department of Homeland Security, Singa is bringing new solutions at a policy level to improve refugees’ living conditions and their access to citizen rights, but also to open the door for a global reform of the asylum application period and the implementation of early integration processes. Nathanaël’s pioneering approach is gaining recognition in France and abroad, and international replication will start in 2014 in Australia and Morocco.

The Problem

There are 200,000 refugees in France and about 10,000 of which are granted asylum every year. The current media coverage around the question of refugees is significant but confusing, mixing the issues of refugees and illegal migrants. The great diversity of realities behind the issue of refugees is not represented in the larger conversation. This leads to a resulting stigma around this population; illegal immigrants are seen by a great number of French citizens as responsible for problems of violence and illegal employment, triggered by the context of economic crisis in the country since 2008. Refugees are perceived as a cost to society, degrading public institutions without contributing to their host society.

Several factors reinforce this negative perception. For one thing, refugees aren’t allowed to work during the asylum application period (which leads to the development of illegal labor). Additionally, the housing system is saturated; 80% of applicants end up on the street or in illegal housing. Finally, asylum seekers and refugees are ghettoized. For example, 40% of Ile-de-France refugees are concentrated in one town, Seine St Denis. These conditions of living reinforce the bad perception and the vicious circle of exclusion.

Yet, the majority of the refugee population in France seeks sustainable integration into their host society - 70% stay longer than five years and thus seek a long-term integration approach - as a lot of them are skilled individuals who were forced to leave their own countries, families and jobs and have a lot to offer their new host country. Close to 50% of them have a Bachelor level education (three years of studies after graduating high school) and all of them have talents to bring to their respective fields. However, the refugees themselves often lack self-confidence after traumatic experiences in their countries and a very long and complex application period. Once they get to France, asylum seekers have no network or knowledge of the country. A lot of them don’t know the language or the cultural codes. They’ve left behind their families, friends, networks and jobs.

Traditional players working on asylum (institutions and associations) are focusing their efforts on the asylum application process. Once refugee status is obtained, support for the refugee is much lighter-touch, usually lasting a few weeks or months at most. Among these traditional players, the interlocutor changes frequently during these few weeks or months. Refugees must explain over and over again a painful situation - often full of trauma - that reinforces their feeling of frustration and exclusion. No interpersonal link is created.

After these few weeks, the refugees generally end up - in the best-case scenario - in basic accommodation, with a job below their skill level (no equivalence exists for diplomas) that does not encourage them to learn French and without any network, friends or knowledge of the cultural codes of their host country. Naturally, they turn to the community of their country of origin, without integrating themselves into the host country. The time taken by the asylum application could be an initial integration period, but instead plays the opposite role. The application period lasts between 10 and 30 months and more than 50% of applications are granted in appeal, after a first refusal. Applicants must navigate the complex and frustrating asylum procedures.

During this period, refugees suffer from a discrepancy between their expectations and the reality of their situation (very basic accommodation, forbidden work). They experience the under-capacity of the services in charge of the problem. There is also a lack of tools and trainings to prepare the refugees for their integration, as well as a lack of training for administration around the refugees’ situations and traumas. The asylum application forms, healthcare system procedures, and intermediary allowance files are not translated into local languages. This leads to long delays in communication flows in governmental procedures.

One of the main integration issues is housing - only 1,100 temporary housing places are available to refugees (during the necessary time for them to improve their French communication skills in order to find a permanent job) despite 10,000 new refugees per year. Despite many attempted reforms over the past 10 years, the refugee system is, “running out of steam,” as Manuel Valls, Homeland Security minister observed in May 2013. Institutions suffer from a strong lack of innovation, despite a recurring assessment of malfunction.

The Strategy

Through a nominator network composed of major citizen and public organizations on asylum, Nathanaël identifies refugees with entrepreneurial skills and supports them in the creation of small enterprises. He then sets up large-scale communication strategies around these entrepreneurs to make them become ambassadors of the refugees’ community showcasing its economic, social and cultural value among society. Nathanaël has implemented a thorough support process for this group of ambassadors to reveal and reinforce their entrepreneurial skills and create projects focused on their talents and passions. His entrepreneurial program includes language courses, cultural training, and understanding of the local market, as well as support for business plan creation and fundraising and administrative assistance.

To represent the diverse reality of refugees, Nathanaël supports emblematic role models who come from very different backgrounds and tells their stories through their projects. For example, four women from four different countries have together set up a world cuisine restaurant. Another has created the first Kurdish dance school in Paris.

Beyond the entrepreneurial successes, Singa sets up communication strategies to “tell another story” about the refugees. The project and the refugees gain visibility mainly through web and media. Each entrepreneur benefits from a blog managed by Singa community managers. In addition, by being very active on social networks, Singa has mobilized a web-community of 70,000 people in only a year.

Singa’s entrepreneurs also have a direct and positive impact on the refugees themselves who lack role models for integration. Rebuilding their confidence and trust, Singa supports those who are not entrepreneurial as well. Nathanaël has structured a one-to-one offer for professional language courses to enable each refugee to focus on the vocabulary needed to quickly enhance value on the French market in order to work in the same professional field as he did in his origin country. For example, an expert accountant from Sierra Leone managed to learn the specific vocabulary and differences in accounting French systems and was successfully trained for interviews, thus getting an apprenticeship in a company in Singa’s network.

Nathanaël has based Singa’s success on the creation of a large community of volunteers. Breaking isolation, speaking the language, building friendships, understanding the cultural codes are fundamental key factors of integration that have been neglected so far by the actors involved in the question of asylum. Convinced by the importance of committing the entire civil society to the integration of refugees, Nathanaël has implemented a system to create interpersonal links between refugees and French citizens at a large scale. By starting to change society’s perceptions on refugees, he turns them into attractive stakeholders - people that everyone wants to help. Refugees aren’t stigmatized anymore, but are instead seen as inspiring, passionate people.

Thanks to the program Singa Languages, Nathanaël makes the commitment of volunteers very simple, and ensures that they are trained on the specific issue of asylum. By implementing a tutoring system, Nathanaël uses French language instruction as a means for establishing a recurring and long-term interpersonal tutor-refugee relation. As of today, 7,000 hours of tutoring have been conducted. Very often, the relationship created goes further and enables the refugee to create a network through his tutor. Today, the mobilization of volunteers is a key asset for Singa, and contributes very strongly to its actions. In this way, Singa’s 2013 cash budget is €130,000 without accounting for volunteer work, but climbs to €1.5 million with volunteer hours accounted for.

Nathanaël also changes perception through collaborative events -“Singa Discoveries” and “Singa Nights” - that enable meetings between refugees and citizens around a topic of common interest. Aware of the fundamental role of local relations, Singa scales through the opening of regional offices. After beginning in the region of Paris (which includes 10 million inhabitants), he chose to expand Singa to Lyon, France’s second largest city, in 2014. Since the beginning, Nathanaël has developed strong partnerships with asylum charities to work with them on the “post-approval phase,” i.e. integration.

Singa assumes the role of innovation lab for public institutions, primarily the Department of Homeland Security. Nathanaël has integrated working groups on asylum seekers and refugees, and is leading two main proposals. The first is a European study about the use of NICTs as a vector of refugee integration, developed by 18 high-level researchers recruited through social networks! The first output of this study is the need to create a common database system to improve the follow-up of each refugee and to coordinate the different stakeholders’ efforts (three different systems currently in place).

The second is advocacy for a new housing solution inspired by an Australian model to offer accommodation to refugees in citizens’ homes – a low-cost solution that would have significant impact on the relationships between the French people and the country’s refugees. Beyond his lobbying approach to this question, Nathanaël has already been leading - in partnership with two major traditional players of the refugee issue in France - the implementation of a concrete tool: a community-based website to connect citizens who agree to accommodate refugees with refugees looking for a home, which will go live in 2015.

The stigmatization of refugees is an issue that crosses French borders and Singa is gaining increased recognition abroad. The model can be replicated elsewhere and Nathanaël has already implemented an international charter for Singa, with a replication kit. In Australia and Morocco, project managers have already been identified and development is under way.

The Person

Nathanaël is an entrepreneur - several times over, despite his young age - and a citizen of the world. He grew up with refugees throughout his childhood as an expatriate in Brazil, Mali, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Morocco and France. As a white foreigner in Mali, he was the victim of racism, discriminated against by the local population. He thus created strong friendships with refugees who, like him, were rejected by their host countries. In Thailand he spent three months in Karen ethnic minority slums, and became a firsthand witness to the day-to-day life of refugees. There, he faced and witnessed social exclusion, injustice and abuse against refugees. At the age of sixteen, in Sri Lanka, he demonstrated changemaking skills in his deep commitment to “Prison Babies,” a Sri Lankan organization that provides better treatment and primary education for children in women’s prisons.

In this country, he also worked with the HCR on a mission in a Tamil refugee camp. From that moment on, Nathanaël decided to pursue studies in international human rights law to advocate for necessary reforms to improve refugees’ integration and to ensure that their rights are respected and fulfilled. As a legal assistant in Morocco, he had his “aha” moment: discovering that refugees were not allowed to work there but could create their own enterprises, he suddenly realized that he could leverage refugees’ talent to radically change their integration process in France, where the asylum sector was facing a deep crisis.

Despite his young age, Nathanaël has already proved his entrepreneurial skills and his strong mobilizer capacity in his pioneering use of social networks. During his adolescence he witnessed the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and decided to launch a reconstruction initiative. He raised awareness among the expat community and companies, using social networks and mailing campaigns, and managed to raise $50,000 to rebuild two schools that were destroyed during the catastrophe.

While studying at ILERI (specialized in international relations) he co-founded the NGO ILERI-MUN. With this organization, he introduced human rights as one of the curriculum’s core issues and made his school the first in the world (with Science Po Paris) to prepare students for a mock session of the United Nations. He proved again to be a great mobilizer: through social network, telephone, and email campaigns, he turned the ILERI-MUN project into one of significant breadth and scope. Today, ILERI-MUN co-organizes this event, which attracts more than 800 participants from around the world and funds the training and travel for 70 students.

At the age of 24, Nathanaël co-founded Singa, which in two years became the first organization in France to support refugees in the creation of entrepreneurial projects related to their passions. Nathanaël’s capacity for empathy and his strong understanding of refugee psychology have established Singa as a leading player in the asylum sector, even recognized by the UN. A great visionary, Nathanaël is convinced that all of society is concerned with refugee integration.

Thanks to his charisma, his determination, and his ability to mobilize people, Singa has managed to reach an increasingly broad community of French volunteers, to engage high level academic researchers from 18 countries in an international study around refugee issues, to work hand-in-hand with other asylum sector organizations and to spearhead proposals to the French government. Beyond supporting refugees, Singa seeks to foster change at a large scale by helping these players shift their practices and jointly challenge stigma and discrimination against refugees.

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