More than employment – building a new life and a better society
16 December 2022
16 December 2022
Picture this: you have left everything behind. You are fleeing your home, and the only certainty is that you are escaping conflict and persecution, looking for a safe haven. For many of us, it is for sure difficult to even conceive this kind of situation.
Refugees are starting a new life, in the new surroundings only after they finish the quest for safety. Even though they are supported by institutions and organizations, new beginnings are not easy and help of a whole society is much needed. Private sector is also engaging ever more in aiding the vulnerable groups, supporting the integration and inclusion of refugees in partnership with UNHCR.
Elvira Kerekeshova and Saliou Saliou were forced to flee their homes in Ukraine and Cameroon. For a couple of months or years now, they feel as Vranje and Belgrade locals, sharing their everyday lives with the new neighbors.
One of the most efficient ways for refugees to rebuild their lives from the scratch is employment. Decent work provides them the opportunity to rely more on themselves and offer their knowledge, experiences and values to the local community, society, and the economy of a country in which they commence new lives. Elvira’s and Saliou’s stories confirm this, as well as the experiences of many other forcibly displaced persons.
The right to work for refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia is guaranteed by local laws, as well as the international conventions. A person who seeks asylum in Serbia may apply for a work permit nine months after filing the asylum application and start working legally.
KNITTING THE THREADS OF DIFFERENT CULTURES
Elvira Kerekeshova fled to Serbia with her daughter and son in late February 2022. They spent the first month at a cousin in Pančevo, and then left for Vranje, where they now reside in the Asylum Centre ran by Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration.
She is satisfied with the life in the new surroundings, with conditions in the centre, and the relationship with its employees: ”The people in Vranje are very kind. The neighbors are also nice to us and other refugees that found peace here. I’ve tried my best to learn Serbian and it wasn’t hard, for sometimes it resembles my mother tounge.“
In Ukraine, Elvira made cakes and worked as a seamstress. Thanks to the efforts of UNHCR’s partner, who helped her and her family in acquiring temporary protection in Serbia, she found out about the possibility to work in a social enterprise “Women on the Way“, that employs refugee and asylum seeking women.
“I started sewing for this company in July, and I am very happy to be able to work, and also to have time for my children. Previous experience at a similar job in Ukraine means much to me in the current job. We sew dresses and purses together, create embroidery for garments. I love sewing, and most importantly, I can earn a salary. I have many ideas and I am truly happy when I can realize them“, Elvira underlines.
She adds that companies can help refugees a lot by providing possibilities for decent work.
Social start-up in which Elvira works was founded by a young woman from Novi Sad Katarina Ejdus, a political scientist who researched challenges and needs of Middle Eastern refugees in Serbia, women in particular, for her master thesis. That’s when she got the idea to start a company that would employ women who found refuge in Serbia.
“At that time, I’ve met designer and painter Farima Shangolian, asylum seeker from Iran. When I asked for her opinion about my idea, she told me she had already started an informal group of refugee women who paint traditional motives on jeans and jackets“, Katarina says.
Then they decided to join ideas, and were joined by Katarina’s sister Lola. The start-up “Women on the Way“ currently employs five refugees from Ukraine in Vranje who sew, knit and embroider, and one of them also designs and creates jewelry. None of them is a profesionall seamstress.
“They’ve all learned to sew and they do it perfectly. That’s what’s best in this story – one can learn sewing relatively fast and it’s creative. The most important for me is that they feel good and able to realize their ideas. Sometimes I’m surprised by how similar we are and the multitude of threads that exist among so many different cultures“.
Katarina stresses that reactions to their products have been very positive. The customers also wish to learn more on who creates the garments, and how refugees live in the new surroundings.
“An opportunity for work and engagement is so essential for refugees, and the private sector in Serbia can surely provide them with that. The women whom I’ve cooperated and work with are dilligent, fast-learners, open for new ideas, with an optimistic approach to work and life. There’s no reason whatsoever not to engage them“, she concludes.
MOVING TOWARDS THE OPPORTUNIES FOR JOB AND GOOD HEALTH
Saliou Saliou lives in the Asylum Centre in Belgrade suburb Krnjača. He fled to Serbia in his wheelchair in 2018. He asserts that the lives of persons with disabilities in Cameroon are extremely hard – it is practically impossible to leave your dwelling and move on the streets. In Serbia he has been granted subsidiary protection, which is renewed annually.
“When I came here, the first thing I’ve noticed is that people are good. In the street, they often ask me if I need help, which was rarely the case in Cameroon. I wasn’t able to get around freely, there was no bus transportation, and taxi was expensive. While I was recovering in a hospital in Zemun, the nurse and doctor surprised me pleasantly – I got a birthday cake for the first time in my life“, Saliou starts his story.
He tells it in Serbian, but he is also fluent in French, as well as Hausa and Fulfulde, the languages of his parents. Still he attends the classes of Serbian language three times a week, within the framework of UNHCR supported project and in the Centre in Krnjača.
“Even though the situation of people with disabilities is much better in Serbia than in Cameroon, here it is also not easy to find a job. Many of us face discrimination. I don’t know why it is so, because we can do everything. Employment opportunities are fundamental for us“, Saliou exclaims.
After a short stint in a local Health Centre in July 2022, he has started his engagement within „Skills for Employment“, internship ran by IKEA Serbia, at the same time as Elvira. Having completed this program, he got a chance to work at IKEA and is now a part of its Quality Compliance Team.
Saliou controls whether the products in the store are presented and marked properly, if the prices are correct. Thus he helps customers to have the best possible experience. The co-workers applaud his efficiency and his meticulous approach.
“I love what I do. The colleagues are very nice to me and always available if I need help or an explanation. On the other hand, I’m also often in the position to help them. When I think about the future, in addition to good health, one of the most important things for me is the chance to work. It’s not easy when you’re unemployed and don’t get out of your everyday surroundings“, asserts Saliou.
That’s why he tries his best to be active. He plays for Wheelchair Basketball Club “Mega Despot“. He has many friends in the team, with whom he traveled around Serbia and won three medals, the last one in Niš, for second place in the national league. He was successful in Cameroon too – in archery and spear throwing. Saliou was supposed to take part in Tokyo Olympic Games, but the pandemic and health issues prevented him from doing so.
THE MOST PRECIOUS MOMENT: BONDING WITH NEW COLLEAGUES
IKEA Serbia started the program “Skills for Employment” within which Saliou started his engagement more than a year ago, in partnership with UNHCR. The idea of this pioneer move in Serbia’s private sector is to help refugees become self-reliant members of the society and acquire knowledge that can help them find a job and adapt to the new environment.
“After two program cycles, as many as 16 participants received permanent employment. When we see such results, we’re all additionaly encouraged to continue to work on this important endeavor and give our best to contribute to creating diverse and inclusive work environment. I’m very happy to recognize even more empathy and mutual support among the colleagues“, underlines Nikola Simonović, Business Partner for Sustainability in IKEA SEE.
Simonović says that new colleagues from different parts of the world help other employees enhance team spirit and creativity, acquire fresh perspectives, and thus the insight into possible innovations and better understanding of buyers’ needs.
”Through this program we have learned how to best support our colleagues in integration and be with them. We learned much more about the challenges refugees face in the new environment, and their journey to Serbia. Each story is special and touching. The very moment of connecting with them is actually the most precious one for all, because in the end, all of us have similar desires, fears and needs, regardless of the color of skin, religion or language“, Simonović adds.
In order to prepare the program in the best possible way, understand the status, rights and needs of refugees, they contacted UNHCR Serbia in 2018. IKEA Serbia then brought the program closer to employees through education and intercultural workshops. A team of 20 employees underwent a training in supporting refugees which contributed to refugees’ integration in the work environment, and even better understanding of company values.
Wishing to share its global experience and encourage the private sector to start employing refugees, IKEA prepared, in cooperation with UNHCR, a toolkit for employers available for free download.
“My message to other companies that wish to kickstart similar initiatives is to turn to organizations that deal with topics of their interest, which can provide them expert advice and proper guidance. By doing so, projects reach their full capacity. We’re willing to meet with all the interested private sector colleagues and share our knowledge and experience. Only through joint action can we bring about improvements, and change the negative narrative that follows refugees“, says Nikola Simonović.
IKEA has thus conducted the campaign “Together for all refugees”, aiming to strengthen the empathy and change the public discourse, often based on unverified information and fear of the unknown. This company further wished to create mechanisms and communication channels to secure that refugees and asylum seekers are encouraged to apply for job positions without fear of discrimination.
“With this program, we have attested the belief that these people only need the right opportunity to show their qualities. My concrete suggestion for other companies is to develop inclusive job ads and encourage refugees to apply. In doing so they’d create a better society for all, and increase their chances to employ truly dilligent, talented people“, Simonović concludes.