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Refugee integration Solomon wants to start a new life

Soloman working at print press

Eritrean refugee Solomon Aklilu is learning the roofing trade in Bern.

(Luca Beti)

Like many refugees in Switzerland, Solomon Aklilu hasn’t got a job. But thanks to a government program, he can now do an internship and attend school.

With precise gestures and seamless coordination of his fingers, Solomon places little sheets of copper into a press. He pulls a lever and the pieces are transformed into neat corners as if by magic. He checks them with a careful eye, then lays them aside and starts again.

Solomon Aklilu, a 24-year-old Eritrean, has been living in Switzerland for three years. We meet him at the Hegg factory in Münchenbuchsee, a village about ten kilometres from Bern.

Solomon began his internship as a roofer on August 1. It is not a proper apprenticeship, but a preliminary training – a first step on the ladder towards professional integration for people with refugee status, or immigrants who have temporary asylum in Switzerland.

“I wanted to learn a trade, but my German isn’t good enough,” says the young Eritrean, who holds an F permit. “After several temporary job stints, Hegg offered me the opportunity to complete an internship as a roofer.”

At Solomon’s side is Hans Häubi, the chief executive of Hegg, a company specialised in tinsmithing and roofing.

“It’s not very easy to find apprentices in our business. It’s a line of work that no longer attracts many young people. You’re often working outside whatever the weather, and it can be quite gruelling,” Häubi says.

“After I saw Solomon’s work during a week-long professional placement, I wanted to give him the chance to complete a year-long internship with us. It’s not just an opportunity for him, it’s also an investment in our company. We need the next generation.”

The difficulty of labour market integration for refugees

According to a 2014 studyexternal link (in German), only 48% of recognised refugees had found a job ten years after arriving in Switzerland. Of those given temporary permission to stay, the proportion was only 25%. However, their integration could bring enormous economic benefits. In 2016, about 86% of refugees received social welfare. Why is it so difficult for refugees to integrate into the labour market? Some reasons include inadequate language and professional skills, cultural barriers, lack of understanding of local values and standards, and the absence of a network of contacts.

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3,600 internships for refugees

Where will the next generation of workers come from for jobs that the Swiss avoid? One source is the refugee population. This would reduce the demand on the welfare system while improving their professional qualifications and experience.

These are some of the reasons why the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) launched its project “Internships for Integrationexternal link” in cooperation with cantons in August 2018.

SEM aims to create 3,600 jobs in various professional fields, particularly in those where there is a long-term shortage of apprentices. The federal government supports each internship with an annual sum of CHF13,000 ($13,450) for a total federal investment of CHF46.8 million. The cantons then pay supplemental costs. Canton Bern, for example, contributes an additional CHF7,000 per internship.

There is a good reason why Hegg is one of the 70 businesses accepting the Bern education authority’s invitation to help refugees enter the labour market. The company employed a worker of Tamil heritage for 32 years. Häubi shows us a photo album, his voice filled with emotion. On the cover are the dates 1984-2016 and the name of the worker, who returned to Sri Lanka two years ago. “We have stayed in touch, even though we are thousands of kilometres apart now,” Häubi says.

Following in his international footsteps is Solomon, who works three days a week either at the company’s workshop or on the rooftops of houses in the region. He spends Mondays and Tuesdays in a classroom at the School of Trade and Industry in Bern (GIBB).

It is here where he is also improving his German language skills. “My main difficulty is the language, above all the Swiss German dialect that I hear daily at work,” Soloman says. “My strong subject is maths. I went to high school in Eritrea for just over a year. I wanted to become a chemist but then I had to flee.”

School as preparation for a ‘real’ apprenticeship

Solomon is taking part in “Pre-Apprenticeship A Integration” classes. About 20 other young refugees sit with him in the classroom. Most are Eritreans – others come from Bangladesh, Syria and Afghanistan.

“It’s a very mixed group,” says Andreas Wüthrich, the teacher. “Some of them have been to university and are very intelligent. And then there are others who have had little schooling.”

Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they all have the same goal: obtaining an apprenticeship. The education department of Canton Bern is striving for a success rate of 60%.

The school timetable includes classes in language and communications, maths, specialist professional knowledge, career counselling, society, and sport. One and a half hours are devoted to administrative matters and personal support for the students.

“Almost all of them crossed the Mediterranean in a boat to get to Europe. Many have lost relatives and friends. The turbulent life stories sometimes resurface and need to be discussed in the lessons,” Wüthrich says.

Solomon Aklilu also had to flee his home in Eritrea and leave his family behind. He is hoping Switzerland will be a place where he can build a new life. He wants to build this life through his own work and shape it in the same way that he crafts the copper panels in the Hegg workshop near the Swiss capital.


Translated by Catherine Hickley, swissinfo.ch

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