Vienna fair rewards best ideas for integrating refugees

Five winners have each received EUR 10,000 to help them develop their businesses.

A fair in Vienna has sought to find the best ideas for integrating refugees into Austrian society.  © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

VIENNA, Austria – Ali Asgar Tajik has been making clothes since he was 11, so it was no problem for him to make a sweat jacket in a trendy retro fabric for his Austrian colleague, Jimmy Nagy.

Ali has made something more sophisticated for his fiancée, Zara Tadjek: a black pleated pinafore dress, with a black silk blouse underneath. Now they have cause to go out and celebrate because Kattunfabrik, the textile venture in which they are all involved, has won a prize at a fair in Vienna devoted to finding the best ideas for integrating refugees into Austrian society.

Ideegration (ideas for integration), an initiative of global companies and organizations committed to social enterprise, looked at 104 projects before choosing 15 finalists for the fair, which was held in the former Ankerbrot bread factory on 10 November. Five winners each took home EUR 10,000 to help them develop their businesses.

“Even if they didn’t win, they will benefit from the networking,” said Christoph Pinter, head of UNHCR in Austria, who was one of the judges.

“Even if they didn’t win, they will benefit from the networking."

Among the projects are a café called the Connection, a neighbours’ support scheme called Nachbarinnen, and TheaterFlucht, a dance and drama company. Several initiatives are in the field of education.

Kemal Köse, whose grandparents migrated to Austria from Turkey, is a co-founder of the Georg Danzer Schulhaus, a group of four boarding schools for unaccompanied refugee children.

“The majority are Afghan boys,” he said. “After all they’ve been through, I try to get them to focus on the positive. I tell them ‘You have done a great job, you have survived. Now it is time to take the next step.'”

Köse added: “I am very blessed that I was born in Vienna. We have everything we need to live a good life, so if I can give something back, why not?”

Five winners from the fair each took home EUR 10,000 to help them develop their businesses.  © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

At the other end of the education spectrum is More Than One Perspective, a venture that offers 100 hours of intensive German-language and other coaching to help already well-qualified refugees move into jobs in their professions.

Eyad Jarach from Syria is taking the course and has had an interview for a possible post in his highly specialized field. “I’m a medical engineer,” he said. “Back in Syria, I was a project manager and trained others to use equipment, endoscopes to be precise.”

Julian Richter, representing More Than One Perspective, added that it was a “win-win situation for refugees and Austria” if someone such as Jarach can get back into his profession.

The winning education project was Prosa – Projekt Schule für Alle!/HOME, which provides basic education for refugees who have missed out on schooling. Abdiwahab Adan, who came to Austria four years ago from Somalia, has done well in the programme. “Now I am studying business and teaching others at the school,” he said.

"We have everything we need to live a good life, so if I can give something back, why not?”

Other projects include heidenspass Basisbildung, upcycling materials to make, for example, smart new rucksacks; ZIAG, promoting integration in small villages; and Fremde werden Freunde (Strangers Become Friends), offering activities via Facebook such as sport and chess.

A project called refugeeswork is a young start-up, aiming to match recent arrivals with companies on the labour market. Conclusio, awarded one of the five prizes aims to help refugees who are not allowed to work before their asylum cases have been decided.

“They get very depressed, they lay down in a sinking mood and that is not healthy,” says Ingrid Sitter, a nurse who came from Upper Austria to represent Conclusio.

The solution from Conclusio is not only to encourage refugees to volunteer, but also to give them cards that record whatever unpaid work they may have done – gardening or repair jobs, for example.

Ali, 24, and Zara, 25, both from Herat in Afghanistan, have found a new purpose since teaming up with Austrian fashion designers Jimmy Nagy and Jasmin Bauer.   © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

In return, refugees can get German classes or other support from the community. In this way, they create a CV that may help them when the time comes to move into employment.

Sometimes illiterate even in their own language, some refugees have the prospect of manual jobs. “I take them into the woods,” said Sitter. “We go berry picking. I try to help them see the advantages of a rural future. Because if they go to Vienna, maybe only three out of 20 will find jobs, while in the villages the success rate might be 12 out of 20.”

Besides education and work, refugees need affordable housing, which is where the prize-winning dageko project comes in. Run by real estate managers Dagmar and Georg Kotzmuth, it finds reasonably priced flats for refugees in Graz and supports them if they have initial difficulties paying rent.

Emad Dyab from Syria is one of dageko’s tenants. “I can’t believe I’m here now, and studying at the Technical University,” he said. “A year and a half ago, my situation was very bad, my life was broken. But Dagmar and Georg helped me. They were human. Thank God I am getting my life back again now.”

“A year and a half ago, my situation was very bad, my life was broken."

In its way, the Kattunfabrik project is also about stitching the threads of normal life back together again after they have unravelled. Some refugees have brought textile experience with them, having worked with fabrics at home or spent time in Turkish clothing factories along the way.

Ali Asgar Tajik, 24, and Zara Tadjek, 25, both from Herat in Afghanistan, have found a new purpose since teaming up with Austrian fashion designers Jimmy Nagy and Jasmin Bauer. Ali, Jimmy and Jasmin concentrate on the clothes, while Zara, who is studying information technology, helps to translate for 15 trainees.  

So far, the clothes they have made – blue jeans with green stitching or floral print shirts – have been 'sold' for donations but Kattunfabrik has ambitious plans to revive the textile industry in Europe. However, in order to trade and grow, they need to establish their own label.

“We’re a little bit overwhelmed,” said Jimmy Nagy after the judging, adding that the prize money would help them to realize some of their plans. Suddenly, the dream of the Kattunfabrik label becomes a distinct possibility.