Guiding Refugees in Europe on a Rocky Path to Assimilation

But when some start interning in a package warehouse, he added, it was not always a good fit. “Maybe they don’t like the job,” he said. “Or other circumstances make it hard for them to fulfill the needs of the job.”

Language is still the biggest issue. Mr. Omar had long experience working as a tailor since age 13. But his lack of proficiency in Dutch and English posed a challenge to would-be employers.

European companies often do not recognize professional certificates or academic degrees acquired in Syria and countries with different educational standards, putting candidates on an awkward footing with competitors. Others arrived without employable skills and required intensive training.

Fleur Bakker, an activist, started the Refugee Company with the view that people assimilate more quickly if they can start working immediately, rather than waiting months for paperwork to clear or until a real job materializes.

In the Netherlands, which received 47,600 asylum seekers last year, newcomers are not permitted to work for six months. Many were growing isolated and even suicidal as they idled in shelters, Ms. Bakker said.

Ms. Bakker found about 40 Dutch companies that agreed to mentor refugees and tap them for temporary work that, ideally, would lead to permanent jobs matching their talent. She collaborated with the City of Amsterdam to make it possible for refugees to get work experience shortly after arrival.

For those lucky enough to land a job, assimilation can come quickly. Dr. Muaz Swaid, 27, a Syrian dentist who fled conflict in 2014, found work in the spring through the Refugee Company at Rechte Tanden, an orthodontist clinic that had trouble finding qualified Dutch workers. He languished in shelters for a year before that, at one point sharing space with 400 asylum seekers in a large tent.

Photo

Refugees spend time at Refugee Company, is a Dutch organization based in Amsterdam that matches refugees with work opportunities.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

“In those conditions, you can’t think about the future,” said Mr. Swaid, an energetic man. “It’s hard enough to make a new beginning, but in the shelter, you’re just hoping to stay alive.”

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His main goal on arriving, he said, was to find work and stop living on government subsidies for refugees. “It’s important to make my own life,” he said, smiling at colleagues who bustled around the sterile, white clinic. “This country helped me, so I must do something — it’s paying them back.”

After signing a work contract, he stopped receiving a €950 monthly stipend from the government to help pay living expenses and rent on a small apartment. Now, he pays the government around €700 a month in taxes from the salary he earns at the clinic and from a second job at a local bar. As he becomes more established, he expects his salary, and his tax contributions, to keep rising.

This month, the Refugee Company opened a facility in a mothballed prison that the city had converted to refugee housing. Inside is a glassed-in office and a spacious meeting room where refugees gather regularly to discuss employment strategies and forge business connections to help others with assimilation.

Dutch restaurant and hotel owners are working on an internal cafe and plan to convert some of the former prison cells into eclectic luxury hotel rooms. The businesses would be run by refugees to give them experience and jobs and to help the restaurants and hotels to identify the best talent for eventual work in their companies.

Near the office, a row of sewing machines was installed to fill orders from Dutch clothing cooperatives and even fashion designers preparing collections for Paris fashion week. When the Refugee Company put out a notice seeking skilled refugee tailors, Mr. Omar was one of 20 people to answer the call.

“Just being in a workplace and interacting with Dutch people makes you feel like you’re a part of the society,” said Mr. Omar, as a group of other newly minted Dutch citizens buzzed around him.

“You start to feel comfortable and gain confidence that you will eventually get a job and be independent.”

Katarina Johannsen contributed reporting from Munich.


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