Expatriation is about “making it” in a foreign environment. Omar Munie was a refugee from Somalia. Now, 11 years later, he is a Dutch national: once an outsider, he is now celebrated as a successful Dutch entrepreneur. Writer Diane Lemieux sits down with Omar to find out what are the keys to his success.

“No one questions me anymore,” says Omar Munie, slouched comfortably on a couch in the showroom of his atelier.

In this spacious room, we are surrounded by the products of his hard work: beautiful bags, mounted magazine articles and photos of events he has participated in, gracefully exhibited materials and locally produced leather that are the trademark of his craft. He seems slightly uncomfortable to admit it, but says that since his high profile success as a designer of high end bags ‘I am accepted for who I am. No one questions the colour of my skin, or asks me where I’m from.’ Not anymore. But it wasn’t always so.

In 1995, Omar arrived in the Netherlands as a 9-year-old refugee from the war in his native Somalia. He was accompanied by his 16-year-old sister and two younger brothers. He has no recollection of the concept of being a ‘refugee’. “I was just a kid.” He shrugs his shoulders with the hint of a smile. “There was a lot of hanging around in the asylum centre. We were mainly with other refugees. That was our world then.”

Later, they were moved to a block of flats in a small town north of Amsterdam and shortly thereafter to Zierikzee, a small sea-side town in the south of the country. “It was really hard at first. I was at school with these Dutch kids, all white, that had never seen a kid like me before.” He empathises with the point of view of those “others”. “It was hard for them too. I was something they had never seen before.”

Omar experienced a sort of sink or swim approach to integration. He had to learn the language and make up for the years of schooling and stability that he had missed. Even Omar judges himself on his grades rather than on the effort it took to get even those grades. “I worked so hard. I hated not getting good grades. It was hard at home because there was no one to help me out. I had to make up for all those years and it never got really good.”

He talks about the struggle to fit in. For example, he and his brothers helped each other learn to bicycle to get to school just like all Dutch kids. I ask him if it isn’t a sign of intelligence that he managed through all that to get through school. He says, after some prompting, “Yes, I guess. But I never felt smart. I was always behind. Always trying my best but not being the best.” This concept of wanting to ‘be the best’ is perhaps the keystone to what drove Omar to his success as an entrepreneur. He could have designed nice bags, popular bags, commercially successful bags… But instead he aimed for the highest quality – the best.

 “From the beginning, I knew that if I wanted to belong to the group of top guys, my bags had to be perfect. And they are.’

But creating perfection and being recognised for that perfection are two different things. Omar experienced this fact at a young age, though it took him years to understand what was going on.

“There used to be this competition at the grocery store. Does it still exist? You could decorate these shoeboxes where you look in from a peephole. Mine were great. I would look at the others and know that mine were way, way better. But I never won a prize. I just didn’t get it. Why did I never win a prize? It was only much later that I understood it: I think they thought that it was impossible that I could have made it myself. Here is this kid with a strange name making these amazing boxes. It didn’t add up. So I never won.”

Before Omar’s last year of primary school, the family was again moved, this time to Leidschendam, a large town bordering the city of The Hague. He had been happy and settled in school, finally getting a grip on the difference between the Somali and Dutch cultures and way of life. It is clear that even at this young age Omar wanted to make decisions for himself, but this level of control was not within the reach of a “refugee”.

In his book, Live Your Dream, Omar says “I ended up at an unpleasant comprehensive school, jammed full of unruly, noisy pupils.” This is where he came across drugs and theft for the first time. He disliked it so much that the following year he enrolled himself in a different school and a year later got himself accepted at to the School for Fashion and Clothing in The Hague. He had to travel two hours to and from school to follow his dream.

Image: Omar Munie Collection
Image: Omar Munie Collection

Even before his 18th birthday, Omar kept many of the decisions he made secret from his parents (his mother re-joined the family three years after Omar and his siblings arrived). His mother wanted him to get a technical education like accounting. In Somalia, she had sold material and sewn clothing; Omar’s father had made sandals. But these had been low-paying, low-status jobs. She had risked all to move the family to an unknown land in order to give them a better future, and according to his parents, the world of fashion was not the path to a good life.

But Omar had, by this time, understood how to navigate his environment. And he had a dream. During his fashion trade-school programme Omar started designing handbags. “I had made 10 bags and went around to 40 shops in Leidschendam thinking I would sell them all. Not one. I get it: here was this young dark-skinned guy selling these beautiful bags. I knew they were (he makes a gesture with his fingers in the air) perfect. But these shop people saw this kid and thought it was weird. Where did he get them? Did he steal them? I was so disappointed. It was really a low point.”

A few weeks later a fellow student invited him to sell a few bags to colleagues at the Dutch publishing house where she was in training. At that occasion, an editor of the Dutch magazine Celebrities was impressed that he made them himself and granted him a half page article in the next issue. Later, with this article under his arm, he approached shops in another town. In his book he describes his experience: “Thanks to that magazine, people believed me immediately because my name and logo were in it. In the eyes of others, I was no longer an African with a vague business, but rather a serious handbag designer.”

Image: Omar Munie Collection
Image: Omar Munie Collection

In the stories that Omar tells about how he achieved his success, it is clear that he used personal contacts and his intuitive networking skills to his advantage. He developed his company during his technical education but wholly outside the school system: while his fellow students were completing classwork, Omar was flying to New York to sell his bags at Macy’s.

“Everybody makes it, but I’ve been very successful. I have not stopped one minute, trying, working.”

I ask him what he would you say to new arrivals in the Netherlands, to refugees today? “The very first thing is to take advantage of everything you can. There are many advantages here and you have to take them or you are missing an opportunity. You have to learn Dutch, the language, the culture the values of the people. That is very important. You are here in a guest country. And if, like me, you come from a country in war, you can’t go back any time soon. So you’d better get used to it.”

Omar’s second point is about success. He transitioned from the status of refugee to take control of his environment and succeed on his own terms. He functions within the rules of his local culture but on his own terms, and in his own way.“I think other people see problems. They anticipate those and are afraid to take steps because of the problems ahead. We all encounter problems. Everybody faces hurdles and difficulties. So you don’t even look at those. You focus on the light of the dream you are aiming for. Then you deal with each problem as it comes along. That’s it.”

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