Much is said about the refugees coming into Europe. Fierce debate and discussions dominate media space while politicians quibble over how to divide the refugees so that the burden is shared. Common man is confused and wonders what will be the aftermath and what role the society needs to play. Unlike many who are apathetic to the crisis and confuse refugees with terrorism and intolerance in society, Fleur Bakker knew exactly what she has to do when she started Refugee Company. In conversation with OFC she explains her plans to integrate refugees into the Dutch society and empower them once again.
How did the idea of Refugee Company come about?
At Refugee Company we believe in the entrepreneurial strength of refugees. Owning a business or having a job means taking care of one’s own income and not depending on welfare aid. It instills a sense of pride and joy. Refugee Company simply believes that refugees should be able to work in the Netherlands and contribute to society. And this should happen not after they have been granted a resident permit, or after 6 months, but from the moment they arrive.
Together with refugees we created the social enterprise “Refugee Company”. Our mission is to bring refugees closer to a real job. We believe work is the best tool to integration because through work, refugees can blend in the society and build a new meaningful life. We explored several ways to create opportunities for refugees to carry out meaningful work, we reviewed our activities together and found out what really helped and what was valuable.
Now, we want to create spaces where refugees feel at home, network with locals and show their worth in society. We collaborate closely with Movement on the Ground who help in strategy, business development and investments.
Favela Painting and Studio Mokum are our partners in making beautiful things; we are a network of designers and entrepreneurs. Art and creativity is our tool to improve lives. As a social enterprise we at Refugee Company are developing businesses to fund our activities and we know we can rely on the goodwill of clients and ambassadors to make it work.
In August Amsterdam opened an innovative refugee shelter where organizations and local municipality help refugees to find work and be active from the moment they arrive. In a nutshell the shelter will become a beehive of opportunities to showcase ones talent. As refugee residents move on in their life, they would have created a professional network, founded a portfolio and learned how to become a professional in the Netherlands.
Why Refugees? What did they represent to you?
Being a refugee makes you feel like unworthy and unwanted. People think you are just handouts. The Refugee Company started out of frustration. because I’ve been seeing so many people stuck in the system. I thought surely much more could be.
I grew up in a rich family with all the opportunities. If you’re open for the world … you see things differently; you want to do something about it. It’s not just being a rebel, but it’s also being an entrepreneur, seeing chances. Then, if you have a conscious mind, you get frustrated as you cannot solve social issues and a lot of people don’t have the same chances as I had.
Tell us briefly about yourself and life before Refugee Company.
For more than 15 years I have been working on programs and concepts aimed at improving the perspectives of refugees in the Netherlands and abroad.
I am also the creative director with Mister Lion (an Amsterdam based lab for social innovation). I am a social entrepreneur, pioneer and co-creator driven by a clear vision about social justice
Your core team and support structure in this venture?
We are a network of entrepreneurs, designers and artists, many of us have a refugee background. Over the past 15 years we have been setting up projects to speed up integration in many asylum centers and refugee shelters in the Netherlands. With Refugee Company as a social enterprise we take things to the next level by putting the talents of refugees to their full potential.
How do you exactly help the refugees?
The Refugee Company empowers refugees. We speed up integration by placing people in the center of society. We help to build up a strong network, set up businesses or connect to a paid job.
We invite people in emergency shelters or asylum centres to come to us, or people approach us,. So we don’t have assessments or job interviews or difficult processes to go through. People showup to work or explain what they do. It’s more of a holistic approach. We help people rebuild their lives.
Your biggest challenges so far in dealing/working with refugees.
The system, bureaucracy and also the negative image people have of refugees.
How do you overcome the socio cultural barriers in dealing with refugees from so different backgrounds?
We have fun together, eat a lot together. Get to know each at different levels. That helps.
How do you finance this project?
Through funding and donations. Beside that we earn money with the projects we do for various organizations.
Under the present situation in Europe is there any change in attitude among corporates and organizations to work with refugees.
Yes, we had one fashion company who canceled the collaboration because they were afraid of attacks on their stores.
What are Refugee Company’s future plans?
By the end of 2016 we are planning the following:
The Craftroom will be run by a network of volunteers and funded professionals. Its a place you can have a coffee, relax, have a talk, and if you feel like it you can join creative activities. A place where Dutch residents can come visit and organize craft and creative workshops. Presently we run a professional sewing atelier and silkscreen studio where we offer a workplace for 30 refugees a week Possible clients and partners: House of Denim, Charlie & Mary, Impact Hub, Craftscouncil.
Our team of project managers are ready to get into action with a network of designers. The webshop is planned to launch before Christmas 2016. Promoting the T-shirt brand “Jalla Jalla”
We will offer a workplace for 15 refugees in Sales, Marketing, Design and Webshop Handling.
Every month a new challenge is organized where residents of the AZC Wenckebachweg can show-off their talents. Each challenge requires special attention to match the talents of the group of participants and to deliver an outstanding result. Participants enter a supporting program called “How to restart your professional life”
We already organized a challenge for booking.com where 25 refugees worked on a very special assignment. The next challenge is The Solar Panel challenge – the first challenge to be conducted along these lines – completed with success; 10 electricians have participated, bringing them closer to a real job. Our challenge team is ready to take on 6 new challenges for 2017.
In cooperation with Charlie Mc Gregor, CEO of The Student Hotel, we propose to open a 40 hotel rooms. The team of the student hotel wants to coach refugees such as Ziad Asad, who was a hotel owner in Palmyra, to run a hotel.
Refugees with food and hospitality background, former Chefs and ex-restaurant owners are ready and motivated to set up a restaurant run by refugees in Amsterdam. We will be serving a buffet with high quality fresh Syrian or Eritrean delicacies in a warm atmosphere and at a great price, attracting food lovers
Every week we plan to ask a Dutch and a Syrian, Iranian or Eritrean cook to make their favorite dish and promote their talent in the media. We connect these food and hospitality experts to restaurants and hotels in Amsterdam and enlarge their network to find a job. On location we have a fixed team who will support the start-up kitchen cooks. We will offer a workplace for 18 refugees as managers, chefs, cooks, helpers and servers.
Your message to the society
Be proud and be happy with the people we get and we meet — by giving him an opportunity to thrive in this country.
Written byShayonti Chatterji
Initiator of Our Frontcover, believer in thinking out of the box, living ones dreams and in the power of stories.