Mentors for migrants: integrating refugees in the EU labour market


Two years ago, as conflict continued to tear his homeland apart, Ayman fled Syria. Starting over in Brussels, he began a Master’s in Management but quit after two months: “It became too much, between learning a new language, doing the Master’s and trying to find a job at the same time,” he explained to Equal Times.

“The main challenge here is the bureaucracy, and languages. You need the language to get a good job and you need connections. I didn’t expect to find a job quickly as I knew nobody at first. You need people who can help, like a godfather,” Ayman said.

Thabit, from Sudan, also in Belgium for two years, found it difficult to settle as well. “It’s a quite a challenge to become integrated in Brussels. You don’t know where to go or who to ask. There is help but it’s not very accessible, ” he told Equal Times.

The two turned to Duo for a Job, a Brussels-based organisation helping refugees and migrants find work, continue their education and further integrate into Belgian society. Founded in 2012, it facilitates inter-generational mentoring by putting young immigrants or “mentees” in touch with local semi-retired professionals who become their “mentors” when job-searching.

Since being a mentee, Ayman has become increasingly positive and self-confident. Workwise, he is not after anything “too specific…I just want to a job as I want to stay in Belgium. I’m starting to love and understand society here. I feel a part of it now.”

At Duo for a Job, project co-ordinator Julie Bodson said migrants face an uphill battle to be accepted, which is one reason Ayman and Thabit withheld their surnames.

“In Brussels the unemployment rate for youth from an immigrant background is about 40 per cent,” Bodson told Equal Times. “It’s linked to discrimination in hiring, in education, and a lack of solidarity networks for newly arrived migrants.”

Bodson said over 30 employment sectors are represented by their various mentors: "They need to be over 50 years old with strong experience in the Brussels business sector. The idea is to match them with a mentee looking for a job in the same sector."

"For six months they support the job seeker during their search. Their main added value is to share and transmit their knowledge and experience," she continued.

Now six months into the programme, Thabit, who found work with the NGO Medicines Sans Frontiers as a result, said he got to experience real working life in Belgium. “It encouraged me to build myself up. My relationship with my mentor helped me to feel grounded in the new environment."

Ayman said he also found the experience to be beneficial. “My mentor helped with the motivation letter and my CV. I got some work. It’s good to have someone next to you who cares about you.”

From over 300 such pairings, there has been a 76 per cent success rate after 12 months, states Bodson. “Fifty-four per cent find a job, while 22 per cent do an internship or return to study. Some 91 per cent of mentees have been satisfied with their experience and 96 per cent of mentors renew their association.”


Integration: a hotly debated topic

The integration of refugees and migrants into the European labour market is a hotly debated topic, especially following the recent spate of violence linked to young people with immigrant backgrounds in France and Germany.

On 5 July the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a non-binding resolution supporting the integration and increased inclusion of skilled refugees into the EU’s labour market.

Christa Schweng, an Austrian member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), authored the Committee’s opinion on integrating refugees in the European Union. It highlighted that most refugees are young, between 16-25 and called for them to be provided with further information and preparatory courses in different professional fields.

It also stressed the need for language training – Thabit concurs. His most “intimidating” challenge when he first arrived in Belgium “was going to the administrative department and not being able to speak the language. It has a negative impact on your confidence.”

Schweng’s opinion also referred to discussions happening in countries like Germany, where refugees’ skills in construction and healthcare help counter shortages in these sectors.

In addition she specifically called for information and guidance for refugees with entrepreneurial skills, on starting their own businesses. Speaking to Equal Times, she called for an assessment of the educational and skills background of refugees “as soon as possible.”

“This should happen in parallel to the registration process, otherwise we won’t know what type of people we have. We are in an ageing society so we need skilled people in the market,” she stressed.

“We don’t want to do nothing,” Ayman insisted. “We have lost a lot in this war but we can rebuild ourselves – we have the ability.”

Migrants as a resource

Sicily is a major EU frontline in the on-going migration crisis. Local organisations such as the Human Rights Youth Organization (HRYO), Sartoria Sociale (Social Tailoring), Moltivolti and Casa di tutte le gente (House for all peoples) have been tirelessly endeavouring to integrate immigrants into Sicilian life by providing them with work, training and other services such as childcare and co-working space.

“We see migrants as a resource not a problem,” says Piera D’Arrigo, social inclusion co-ordinator with HRYO, a Palermo based organisation that promotes civil rights and social development.

“These organisations are run by migrants and Italians together. They create jobs for both groups and contribute to the area’s development. It sends a message that migrants can help themselves,” she said, speaking to Equal Times. “This is a positive example for Europe.”

Sartoria Sociale, established in Palermo in 2011, brings together designers and tailors from various ethnic backgrounds, offers training and provides people with a new vocation.

On donated machines, its members use recycled material to produce a range of goods from clothes to bags to book covers.

“Some of the people who trained here have now become tailors with their own shops in Palermo, with their own clients, securing their own income,” said Adebanji Adeniji, who works with Sartoria Sociale as an educator.

“When we meet immigrants who are unable to find work, we explain that we can give them a new vocation and we take them in,” Adeniji told Equal Times.

Moltivolti is a community co-working association in Palermo that includes migrants and locals. It has a multicultural restaurant staffed by 14 people from eight different countries, and it serves as a meeting point for discussion on social issues.

“Migrants have a story and they must be given a voice. We need to discover their skills and competences,” said Claudio Arestivo, who works with Moltivolti.

Also in Palermo is the Casa di tutte le gente, a kindergarten open to Italian and immigrant children that was established by a group of formerly unemployed female migrants. Some of the parents work there on a voluntary basis, as does Samba Mamadou Ndiaye. Originally from Senegal, he works as a volunteer teacher after the manager asked for help.

“I’ve met so many people from different countries. Now that I work with their children I’ve started to understand their parents’ situation and the difficulties they have finding work,” he told Equal Times.


Funding shortfall

However, Adeniji of Sartoria Sociale highlights the lack of funding as a major challenge for local social enterprises.

“Funding has not come from the Italian government, the Palermo Commune nor the EU,” he said, despite his enterprise making presentations to the government. “I see no reason why we cannot get funding to do our projects. These people need our help.”

The EU tends to look at larger NGOs when it comes to funding, claims Arestivo.

“We don’t have much influence compared to the big umbrella groups, who work on an EU advocacy level,” he said. “We want to have local voices heard – from people who are dealing with this on the ground.”

He highlighted that in Palermo, there have been approximately 2,000 refugees and migrants arriving each week, including about 200 minors. “When minors come as refugees they have protection, but when they turn 18 they lose it. We are looking for funds to support them, to help them find work,” he explained.

D’Arrigo believes that the work of these Sicilian enterprises could be presented as a model of best practice for migrant integration.

“Being in Sicily gives us the opportunity to face this phenomenon. Sicily is both an Italian border and an EU border. We share in the responsibilities of looking after migrants and refugees, which is positive for Europe as well as Sicily.”

However, they could do much more. “We do not give up easily, but bureaucracy slows down our work. We are happy to show this to other people, but we need financial support to continue,” she said.