In the summer of 2015, Alauddin Alakhel left Pakistan, where he had lived since he was a child, trekking westward for hundreds of miles across Iran and Turkey. Eventually, he made it to France.
When the 18-year-old Afghan first arrived in Paris, he had few local bearings. For three months, he slept rough in a park near Gare de l’Est, a train station in gritty northern Paris. Conditions were “very harsh,” he recalls, but nonetheless better than what he had experienced on previous legs of his journey – beatings by Iranian prison guards; skirmishes with Hungarian police on the Serbian border.
Eventually, French authorities found Alakhel a room. It was a disorienting time, he told WikiTribune. He barely spoke any French and no language school would take someone without official immigration papers. Asylum seekers aren’t legally allowed to work, so he scraped by on a meagre government allowance. He drifted, going to the mosque and cooking a rice dish called biryani with other Afghans in his apartment to pass the time. He said it was better than sleeping on a bench, but hardly a fulfilling life.
However, over the past year, Alakhel has transformed. Today, he speaks fluent, if halting French. He talks confidently of his plans to go to school and pass his French high school baccalaureate. He is one of hundreds of people who have taken a course offered by Wintegreat, one of a growing number of charities trying to help integrate asylum seekers into a new life.
Wintegreat, founded in 2015, pairs asylum-seekers with students and professionals, helping guide them into education and employment. It works in partnership with top universities in France – including Emmanuel Macron’s alma mater, Sciences Po Paris, and the Haute École de Commerce, a reputable business school.
“[We want to] reveal the potential of refugees,” says Eymeric Guinet, a Wintegreat co-founder.
(Disclosure: Alakhel was paired with this writer last academic year, when he volunteered with Wintegreat.)
Similar not-for-profits have sprung up across Europe since the start of the ongoing migrant crisis.
The objective of these self-styled social enterprises is to counter one of the paradoxes of refugee policy. Asylum seekers often arrive in countries at the physical prime of their life – typically their late teens and early twenties. Yet in many countries, including Britain and France, they are legally barred from working while their asylum claims are processed, a process which can take years.
This inactivity can have severe consequences, says Fuad Mahamed, who arrived in the UK from Somalia as a refugee 20 years ago. Today, he helps run Ashley Community Housing, a charity helping train refugees to enter the job market.
“The biggest loss I see, is that when you see somebody wait [for their asylum claims to be processed] for five years, you push them to the black market and if you’re a young man, sometimes that can mean drugs. Your mental health deteriorates very quickly,” he says.
Alakhel took classes in English, French, and something called “living in France,” where he learned about democracy, economics, and what binds French people together. According to Eymeric Guinet, living in France is intended to work in tandem with the professional partnerships Wintegreat organizes. The idea he says is helping refugees “understand their environment, and therefore better act [within it].”
The experience of arriving in any foreign country and adapting to a vastly different culture can be bewildering, says Fuad Mahamed. He says that refugees have vast potential, but must be guided and helped to realize it.
“It was a struggle. The education system was different … it was in those early days that I thought that one day I would establish an organization to help refugees in the early stages of settling in.”
He says his experience informs how he operates his charity, which has partnerships to place refugees with companies like Starbucks.
“I was 16 [when I arrived in the UK]. I could not speak any English. I was very grateful that the UK had given me refugee status and accommodation … But [I did not like] how the UK integration system works.”
‘Determination, resilience, hard work’
When Mahamed arrived in the UK, he spoke no English. He went on to graduate with a first-class degree in Engineering, which he followed with a Master’s degree in Management.
For Matthew Powell, the founder of a similar charity called Breaking Barriers, this type of path is no coincidence. He says that refugees have demonstrated the intangible skills employers look for – “determination, resilience, hard work” – simply by virtue of trekking across borders and oceans to Europe.
“[Refugees have skills] that employers love, that you don’t get by having the typical middle-class upbringing that I had.”
Accordingly, he says that hiring refugees has concrete business advantages for employers, beyond feel-good corporate social responsibility.
“[Employee] retention rates are generally much higher [for refugees] than the general population,” he says. “Invest in people and they’ll invest in you as an organization.” Powell claims that the retention rate for refugees doing placements with Breaking Barriers is twice that of the general population.
Guinet, for his part, says that in hyper-competitive sectors, hiring refugees can be an asset for companies. He does not, however, want the people his charity is helping train to be thought of primarily as refugees, but rather, simply as workers like any other.
“We are not telling companies to hire refugees because it’s a good thing to do. Rather, we do it because these people have important skills.”
Powell speaks glowingly of Mayada Elmaki, who works at Mischon de Reya, a law firm, following a first job in a customer service job. She says the placement improved her confidence and language skills. At Mischon de Reya, she speaks to Middle Eastern clients in Arabic, helping accommodate them as only a native of the culture could.
“I don’t feel like the ‘other’ or excluded from society anymore,” she says.
Powell is quick to point out that though some refugees may be highly educated and skilled – often the focus of sympathetic press – many are not. He says they should not be overlooked.
“The majority of people are vulnerable and require intensive intervention to get them into work – but they have the most important thing, which from my experience is an appetite and desire to work.”
Asylum seekers see Europe as attractive in part because of the high wages and good working conditions. However, some claim that the integration of refugees is hindered by the exacting standards demanded by European legislation, which puts off employers from hiring them. One solution to refugee underemployment, floated by the IMF (Euractiv), is to lower labor standards for refugees and asylum seekers, potentially incentivizing their hiring.
All of the people WikiTribune spoke to were scathing about proposals to lower standards for refugees and asylum seekers.
“You could replicate that argument with any other marginalized group,” says Matthew Powell. “People with physical disabilities, mental health issues – all of a sudden the minimum wage is redundant in society,”
He believes it is better to raise standards for all, including refugees, than lower them for some. He says that companies needing to treat refugees the same as other workers hasn’t stopped Breaking Barriers helping over 500 people gain skills in order to enter the workplace.
Though Alakhel’s French is better now, it still isn’t perfect. When he doesn’t understand a question, he gives a half-smile and doesn’t respond, like an underprepared politician. He’s going to school in the autumn, because he still hasn’t received a decision about his asylum claim. He wants to be a nurse. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll try cooking.
“I like Wintegreat. It helped me feel more French.”