With 25.9 million refugees globally, the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record (UNHCR, 2019). It has never been more important to consider how to best integrate and include refugees in society, especially in the workplace.
Nidal Seide, a Senior Consultant at our Kolding, Denmark office, sat down with us to discuss the important work she has been doing with Kolding municipality that prepares and supports employers and refugees alike for successful work experiences.
Nidal has a unique background that allows her to connect and motivate refugees better than the average person. She was born a refugee in Lebanon and traveled with her family to many countries before settling in Denmark, where she now has full citizenship. She has devoted her career to helping others integrate into Denmark.
In the following interview, Nidal shares rare insight into what it is like for refugees to join the workforce in a foreign land, and shares valuable advice on how we can all act inclusively towards newcomers in the workplace.
Can you share a recent memorable experience you had working with refugees?
We have done a lot of refugee training lately for both men and women of all ages. Some participants have an education from their home country; some have no education at all. Some are illiterate. Our refugee participants come from very different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds and experiences.
I was working with an older demographic of refugees who were mostly Somalian women who had been living in Denmark for over fifteen years. The majority had little understanding of the Danish language, had more than five children, were divorced, no education, and were in poor condition both mentally and physically.
This demographic of women were raised to always serve their family. They knew how to do this and only this. They came in with the mentality that they “hadn’t unpacked their suitcases yet.” In other words, they were still mentally living in Somalia, despite physically living in Denmark for over fifteen years.
These women genuinely believed they would never have the chance to build a future and create a different life for themselves in Denmark. Many of these women thought they were too old, and they had nothing to offer anymore.
My job was to help them “unpack their suitcases.” As I worked with these women, they started to take steps to create a life for themselves, such as going to school and starting small jobs. These things created purpose and allowed them to develop their own dreams. They are living proof that there is a chance here in Denmark for anyone willing to try.
What do you think are some of the more challenging aspects when hiring and retaining refugees or new citizen migrants?
Cultural barriers can cause many issues; employers are sometimes afraid of hiring refugees because of these barriers. Behaviors can easily be misunderstood and interpreted in different ways. Sometimes, behavioral differences can play a bigger role than language barriers.
Human beings like routines and control; we want to know we can communicate (both verbally and through our actions) in a meaningful way, and know that our employees understand us. We tend to have “boxes” for different types of people, and it can be hard to see people as individuals this way. We see where someone is from and not who they are as a person.
We can be quick to fill in the gaps about someone based on what we know. While we don’t mean to judge people, we all have our unconscious biases. Sometimes employers are looking for characteristics and personality traits—not qualifications or certifications—and this can make a lot of refugees lose out on the chance for a job.
The other day, I spoke to a Syrian refugee who stated “a lot of Filipinos clean houses” and “Indians tend to do menial jobs.” They didn’t know a lot about these people outside of seeing them hold lower-status jobs. In these cases, it can be easy to judge someone and their culture/country if it is all they are exposed to.
What are some of the bigger rewards and benefits of hiring refugees/new citizen migrants?
They are very grateful and active workers. Typically, they come from cultures where the family is the first priority, and work comes in a close second. Because of this, they are very loyal. They are eager to work and feel a sense of purpose and community; they will work as hard for your business as if it were their own.
What do you think refugees and new citizen migrants struggle with the most when joining the workforce?
The education requirements for jobs can be a barrier. Very few jobs are available without education or a least a few courses these days. In Denmark, even cleaning jobs require courses in cleaning chemicals and occupational health and safety.
The culture is very hard to learn as well. Danish employers tend to want new employees to learn about Danish culture quickly. However, Danes aren’t typically very talkative, so it can be hard for newcomers to understand the culture and adapt accordingly. Because of this, building a bridge to connect the cultures, as we do with our work, is very important.
This is why I find my job so exciting. We know what these newcomers need to succeed, and we can help them.
What benefits or rewards do refugees and new citizen migrants get from working?
Like everyone, refugees need to have a sense of belonging in society and feel as though they are contributing instead of being a burden. This allows them to keep their self-respect. It gives them the chance to interact with their new community and to be self-sufficient, which is very important for their mental health.
It is incredibly difficult when you have lost everything and everyone around you. You cannot communicate your experiences or skills, and the culture and norms are completely different. Suddenly you need to do things very differently. Many refugees just need someone to explain the new cultural norms, so they can begin to understand the local culture and adapt.
I have personally been through these experiences many times. My family has settled into different countries, and then we had to up and leave, and never come back. I always made an effort to learn to adapt my manners, habits, and behaviors for each new culture. It builds a lot of character. In this sense, it can be a blessing.
When you lose everything, you have everything to win! There is nothing more to lose.
What do you think colleagues need to understand about refugees and new citizen migrants starting a new job?
Firstly, these are individuals that come from different cultures. When miscommunication occurs, they often simply need an explanation to learn the ways of their new environment.
It’s important to remember that many refugees come from very social cultures that rely on relationship-building. Also, they will often come to understand social and working norms in stages. Give them time—it will come with training and daily interactions.
People can learn and adapt when we are kind and patient. These individuals had to leave everything they knew and start from zero. Imagine you land on a soccer field when you first arrive. In the beginning, you are the ball on the field. You don’t know which way you want to go or what you’re doing, but as you learn, you become a football player guiding yourself in the right direction.
How can colleagues help to create an inclusive work environment for refugees and new citizen migrants?
Spend time with them. Let them ask you questions, and ask them questions. Ask about their family, what they do for fun, and what they did in their homeland. Try to show respect for their loss.
If you could give employers one piece of advice in terms of hiring and retaining refugees and new citizen migrants, what would you say to them?
Both the refugees and the employers I work with come to training with certain assumptions. Many refugees assume employers don’t like them because they are foreign; that employers don’t care about their situation or how they feel. Employers often assume refugees are unreliable, or won’t come to work on time. These assumptions are harmful.
Try to be open-minded and give refugees a genuine chance. Try to be understanding. They will work for you as long as you need and take care of your business like it is their own.
Download our quick guide Five Powerful Ways to Be More Inclusive for more strategies.