Yara Said was 6 years old when she first heard the word “war.” Now based in Amsterdam, the chatty Syrian talks passionately about how she long wanted to travel the world. “I always lived in a shaky place, financially, socially, and ecologically,” Said says, “but I didn’t think I would go this way.” Equipped with her backpack, her iPhone, and hopes of a whole new world, the 26-year-old fled a dangerous Damascus back in the fall of 2015. A yearlong journey took her through nine different countries and ended with a nine-month stint at a refugee camp in the south of the Netherlands, which, “like everyone else there, I despised,” she says.

“The picture we get in the Middle East is that Europe is this utopian place, where there is no racism, no discrimination, where everyone loves each other, and then you come here and millions of people hate you,” Said says. But Said did have one positive experience in the camp: She met Fleur Bakker, the director and cofounder of an Amsterdam-based social enterprise created to provide fulfilling, dignified work for refugees. Bakker offered Said the chance to participate in projects with the social enterprise and helped her resettle in Amsterdam. “I never went back to my camp,” Said says with a grin.

Today, Said works with Bakker’s organization, Refugee Company, as a visual artist. She helps design textiles that the company sells, leads workshops, and is working to organize a refugee artists’ network. Back in 2016, her name went viral after the Amnesty International-sponsored organization Refugee Nation commissioned her to design a flag for the refugee team participating in the Rio Olympic Games. The orange-and-black flag, which resembles the life vests worn by thousands of refugees, including Said, is now on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Along with architect Femke Bijlsma and entrepreneur Michiel Lensink, Bakker came up with the idea for Refugee Company in the summer of 2015, the year when more than one million refugees arrived in Europe and more than 2,200 lost their lives on the way. “First, we started an emergency shelter in Amsterdam, where we connected people who were almost suicidal with temporary jobs or at least meaningful activities during the days, and then it grew and grew,” Bakker says. As the organization took off, the organizers also coordinated children’s activities and provided Dutch classes. Today, Refugee Company is a sleek, modern events hub where migrants can make new friends, network, participate in skills training workshops, and gain job placement support from staff and volunteers.

A social entrepreneur by trade, Bakker learned the importance of creating both social and professional networks for refugees from previous work with shelters and refugee assistance programs. The majority of new arrivals desperately want to improve their skills and knowledge and to feel worthwhile again, she says.

Three trainees at A Beautiful Mess restaurant inside Refugee Company review a food order. (Photo courtesy of Refugee Company) 

So far, Refugee Company has helped more than 200 newcomers find work as computer programmers, furniture upholsterers, metal sculptors, and hairdressers. It has also linked job seekers to companies and organizations such as Heineken, Philips, AkzoNobel, and 216 Accountants. In addition to these connections to outside companies, Refugee Company itself employs refugees at its own in-house enterprises: a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a clothing line.

“We have a really holistic approach,” Bakker says. Refugee Company staff look at what refugees did in their home countries, what they studied, and how they see their future. “We could also start a job agency, but by working together and creating a nice atmosphere, the community building starts, and from there you can build to the next step,” Bakker says.

New Skills and a new Network

Refugee Company is based in the former launderette of one of Amsterdam’s most notorious prisons, the Bijlmerbajes. Situated in a rough but up-and-coming neighborhood in the south of Amsterdam and known for its six high-rise towers, the facility ceased to be a prison in June 2016 and two months later began sheltering asylum seekers. Today, 600 people reside in its concrete former cells. At least half have used the services of Refugee Company, which is a colorful, artistic hub of activity that would turn any hipster’s head.

Upon entering the social enterprise’s doors, visitors are greeted by a trendy coffee bar decorated with eclectic art. Hip-hop music pumps through the industrial building. A hallway leads to a vast restaurant open to the public that is run by refugees with the guidance of one friendly Dutch man. The day I visit, the restaurant staff are preparing for barbecue night and planning to feed a full house of more than 70 people.

“Before, this was just a dirty laundry room that was left for a long time. Nobody used it,” says Hayder al Saadi. The 29-year-old is a former bar owner from the south of Baghdad and is now the Refugee Company eatery’s floor manager. “All the decoration was done by a Syrian architect.” He adds that he has gained all the skills he uses in managing the restaurant since coming to Refugee Company. “I had no training until I came here, and I have since learned all about food and how to deal with people,” he says.

Hayder speaks perfect English and conversational Dutch, languages he did not know before arriving in the Netherlands in 2015. The serious young man, who now lives in the heart of Amsterdam with one of his brothers, was traumatized by the hardships of his journey to Europe and has no intention of returning to Iraq. Although he misses his parents and other siblings, including another brother who is fighting against the so-called Islamic State, he is pleased to have found such fulfilling work in Amsterdam. “It is amazing here. I love it,” he says. “It feels like home.”

Now that the restaurant has gotten off the ground, Refugee Company will turn its focus to expanding its in-house fashion studio. Its online shop already features a range of T-shirts and hoodies designed and produced by refugees. “There is no manufacturing or textile industry here in Holland, but we see a lot of tailors and machine workers coming over—people who cannot read or write but that make beautiful productions, as they have been working in factories since they were 11,” Bakker says. She hopes that these migrants can help bring a tradition of craftsmanship back to the Netherlands, which currently imports most of its clothing.

Thanks to funding from the municipality and various foundations in the Netherlands, Refugee Company now employs 10 full-time staff to oversee its administrative operations and programs, not including those it employs in its restaurant, coffee shop, and fashion studio enterprises. (Its staff includes a mix of Dutch citizens and migrants.) Ultimately, the hope is that it will become financially self-sustaining, Bakker says.

“Every day at Refugee Company is different; every meeting or new connection is unique,” says Katia Verreault, the organization’s social and psychological counselor, who works one-on-one with refugees who have experienced trauma and helps them find fulfilling activities that match their interests. “We create a sense of family, a support network, and a place to rediscover oneself,” Verreault says. She runs through a long list of people she has worked with who have gained new skills in areas such as cooking, sewing, baking, and singing. “I suppose we facilitate this process of finding a meaning, a new sense of hope that long asylum procedures and heavy bureaucratic systems have often shattered.”

Helping Manage a Crisis

Onerous bureaucratic systems and European governments’ slowness in relocating and integrating newcomers have made life challenging for refugees and migrants. The migrant crush and the social tensions it has stirred up among Europeans put enormous stress on newcomers. That is why Europe needs more initiatives like Refugee Company, says Katharina Bamberg, migration and diversity analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Projects such as the Refugee Company contribute greatly to opening up the labor market and thereby creating opportunities for the integration of refugees to the benefit of both sides—refugees and host societies,” she says. Bamberg laments that most refugees have to take jobs below their skill level because there are not enough services to help them find suitable employment. She commends organizations that are addressing this problem, such as Refugee Company and DUO for a Job, a Belgian program through which experienced professionals mentor young job seekers from migrant or refugee backgrounds.

These two organizations are among the many refugee integration efforts that have sprung up around Europe since 2015, says Jens Mueller, the Brussels-based president of the refugee assistance nonprofit Refugees Are Not Alone. In the face of the crisis, he says, citizens, NGOs, and companies have been doing the work that would usually fall to governments— from handing out emergency aid in the streets to helping refugees find work and a place to stay. Although governments have regrettably not stepped up, the gap has encouraged private organizations to pioneer creative approaches to refugee integration, he says.

My visit to Refugee Company ends with dinner in the restaurant. A board meeting has just come to an end, and the crew is tucking into an array of Middle Eastern delights from hummus to tabbouleh. The room is chilly, as the vast former launderette is not so easy to heat, but the atmosphere is warm. Fleur Bakker and her board are exhausted but highly motivated about Refugee Company’s future. The staff waiting our table are beaming from ear to ear and providing excellent customer service despite the busy night.

“It is safe space here,” Yara Said turns to me to say. “We are artists, doctors, chefs, plumbers, women, and children. We are family.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry