Petra, bridging the gap between refugees and employers

Interview and photograph by Joris van Erp

“Petra, could you help me find a job?” It was a question that Petra Wolters, staff member of VluchtelingenWerk, was asked a lot by the refugees she met. This is why she founded Meraki Uitzendbureau, a starting employment agency which aims to facilitate labour market integration of refugees in the city of The Hague. On May 31st, our platform Haagse Huiskamer organised an acceleration session with stakeholders to support her project.

From being a conservatory graduate, how did you become the manager of a social corporation?

“After I graduated from the conservatory, I started working at the education department of the Residentie Orchestra, where I also played the bassoon. Three years ago I decided to see what I could do outside the realm of music. So I took a gap year and worked temporarily as a volunteer coordinator in a refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece.

After that I started working at Vluchtelingenwerk, where I am currently working part-time. Here, I am responsible for organising activities where refugees and Dutch citizens meet. But refugees still approached me with the question: “Petra, could you help me find a job?” These requests that made me think about the concept of Meraki”.

What is the idea behind Meraki?

“Meraki is an employment office, so I basically try to connect labour supply and demand. On the one hand, there are many refugees in the Netherlands who would like to work. On the other hand, many employers who cannot fill their job vacancies. Often they simply do not know how to find each other. Other organisations have been trying to fill that gap, such as the Werkgeversservicepunt (government employment service) but I believe that it has not been sufficient to provide tailored help.

Refugees form a complex target group that includes people with different backgrounds, education levels, and personal wishes. If we want to give these employees a sustainable place on the Dutch labour market, we need to take their individual wishes and qualities into account.”

Do you manage to achieve your goal?

“Meraki was launched in January 2018, and some refugees have already started their jobs thanks to us. However, there are many challenges. Employers currently involved with Meraki are mainly from my own personal network, which means that  it hasn’t been very successful to try and form new partnerships. Although I am very happy with my current partners, it is my personal aim to reach employers outside my direct personal network.”

In other words, the implementation of the Employer Service has raised many questions for Petra. How can Meraki reach more companies and convince them to hire refugees? Is the concept of an employment office helpful or are other ways of mediation perhaps more efficient?

What do you like about this job?

“Moments of success, probably. For example, Mohammed, a Syrian hairdresser from my network, has recently been able to follow a hairdressing training programme.  Thanks to this programme, he could take up his old job and start working again in the Netherlands. It is extremely rewarding if you succeed in offering this type of individualised support.

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