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Food, Fashion Providing Employment for Refugees

More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, and over 50,000 more arrived by boat in January 2016. While most asylum seekers are trying to escape the war in Syria, tens of thousands are also fleeing Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Serbia, and Ukraine. Once they arrive in Europe, they face numerous barriers to employment – not the least of which are the influx of people, tough economic times, and employers’ perception of refugees.

“We’ve got people into work who are very experienced accountants, architects, engineers, IT experts,” Sheila Heard, the managing director of Transitions, told The Guardian. Transitions is a recruitment service that specializes in connecting British employers with skilled refugees.

“A lot of employers have said, ‘We had no idea there’s this talent pool.’ Many businesses value the knowledge of international practice that refugees can bring.”

A recent effort to change that perception was made – of all places – at a men’s fashion show. In January, between fashion events in London and Milan, Florence hosted Pitti Immagine Uomo, Italy’s answer to Men’s Fashion Week. For the second year, Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a United Nations and World Trade Organization group that mentors emerging designers from Africa, partnered with Fondazione Pitti Discovery for a special event. “Generation Africa” highlighted four young fashion designers from the African continent in a runway show.

“We continue our collaboration with Pitti Immagine to showcase the creativity of Africa. We want to convey a different image of the continent, one of innovation and diversity with a strong youthful energy for positive change. Pitti Uomo is the perfect platform for the designers to express their vision and show that Africa means serious business,” Simone Cipriani, Head and Founder of EFI, said in a press release.

EFI decided to take their actions one step further this year. Three asylum seekers were included amongst the models on the catwalk, and two others were selected for a photoshoot. The men, aged between 19 and 27, reportedly arrived in Italy by boat from Mali and Gambia in May. They sported collections from Ikiré Jones, Lukhanyo Mdingi x Nicholas Coutts, AKJP, and U.Mi-1.

“Clothing is just a vehicle, I'm much more interested in discussing these issues... of migration, of borders being crossed,” Nigerian-American designer Walé Oyéjidé, the designer behind Ikiré Jones, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “If I take an asylum seeker and put them in a suit, people perceive them in a certain way, which hopefully allows them to think of them as an equal human being, not as someone's less than them.”

What’s more, the organization also plans to launch a pilot program to train asylum seekers for employment in the Italian fashion industry.

“As we are in Italy and have a huge refugee crisis we also want to show that migrants are a resource,” Cipriani told AFP backstage before the event. According to Reuters, about 140,000 migrants arrived in Italy from North Africa in 2015.

EFI will partner with Italian association Lai-mono, which welcomes asylum seekers in Italy and promotes cross-cultural exchanges between Africa and Europe, to launch the training centre. According to Ecouterre, the pilot program will train a group of 30 asylum seekers for employment in Italy’s textile and ready-to-wear industries, or to establish their own businesses if they decide to return to their countries of origin.


Meanwhile in the United States, a new company is hiring refugees directly: Eat Offbeat is a new meal delivery startup in New York. So far, there are three Offbeat Chefs preparing authentic, home-style ethnic foods: Nidaa Al Janabi from Iraq, Rachana Rimal from Nepal, and Mitslal Tedla from Eritrea.

“Of course we want to help refugees and help them find employment, but we don't define ourselves as someone who helps refugees — we're helping New Yorkers discover something new, and see the value in what these refugees are bringing,” Manal Kahi, co-founder and CEO of Eat Offbeat, told Fast Company. “It's really about helping New Yorkers rather than the opposite. We want to change the narrative around that.”

Kahi, who is originally from Lebanon, was impressed by the quality and diversity of peanut butter she found in supermarkets when she moved to New York two years ago, but was disappointed in the hummus. She began making her own based on a family recipe, and her brother Wissam Kahi saw the opportunity to sell it. They would need help to make bigger batches, and Manal thought of Syrian refugees – her hummus recipe originally came from her grandmother, who was Syrian.

“The refugee crisis was already a thing in Lebanon when I left,” she said. “So I had that in the back of my mind—I felt a bit helpless about the situation.”

From there, the idea quickly evolved. The siblings realized that there were endless other recipes from around the world that they would like to try – and resettled refugees in New York that knew how to make them.

“We ourselves were very curious about other countries too, so that's why we thought why not make it a bit more global, and include people from everywhere,” Kahi said.

Chef Juan Suarez de Lezo joined the team to help train the refugees on commercial food preparation and help plan the menu. For now, there is a minimum order requirement of five servings. The startup is targeting coworkers, corporate lunches, and dinner parties to help them grow. They plan on hiring chefs from other countries soon and eventually will offer individual orders. The refugees are recruited through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) which resettles thousands of refugees each year in 26 U.S. cities.

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