Refugees Wanted: Meet The Companies Creating Jobs For The Displaced

From Chipotle and Starwood to a small business in Kansas City, companies large and small are learning that hiring refugees helps the bottom line.

Refugees Wanted: Meet The Companies Creating Jobs For The Displaced

When Charly Ngoma arrived in Arizona as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he’d never eaten a burrito before. Three months later, he had a job at Chipotle. Now–after a year and a half, and two promotions–he’s general manager at one of the restaurant’s locations in Phoenix.


“Everything I saw my first day was new,” he says. “I didn’t know even the name of the ingredients they use in English. I was just writing down everything.”

One reason for his success was his own motivation and hard work. But Chipotle also partners with the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, to recruit refugees. Without the partnership, it’s unlikely he would have even heard of the job.

For Chipotle, working with refugees is largely a business decision: Refugees sent by the IRC are more than seven times more likely to be qualified and hired compared to someone in the company’s typical applicant pool. But the program is also an example of one of several ways that businesses are helping to address the largest refugee crisis in world history.

Out of more than 65 million displaced people in the world now, 21 million are refugees–people who leave their country as they flee violence or persecution. “The scope of what we’re talking about here–that many people–is something that governments can’t fund alone and can’t support alone,” says Jennifer Patterson, project director for the Partnership for Refugees, a new initiative the White House announced in June to work with the private sector.

In Europe, scaling up employment programs–giving refugees the opportunity to quickly support themselves–is critical if countries are to absorb more refugees. In the U.S., which resettled a much smaller number of refugees last year (less than a tenth of the new arrivals in Europe), strong employer programs can also help build political support to accept more refugees.

“It helps to change the public perception about refugees; they’re not a burden or a drain on America,” says Patterson.


There are many ways that businesses can help by donating to charity. But the Partnership for Refugees is focused on scaling up in areas where businesses should become directly involved: education, infrastructure such as internet access, and employment.

Working with refugees is good business

Inside the U.S., which plans to resettle 85,000 refugees this year, one of the simplest ways that businesses can help is by offering employment, partnering with organizations that manage the resettlement process.

When a refugee newly arrived in the U.S. is resettled with the IRC, the organization offers training in basic job searching skills. Sometimes interpreters come on interviews. In some locations, the IRC also helps refugees–who obviously have widely varying backgrounds and skills–practice specific jobs, such as work at a hotel or restaurant.

“You might see a makeshift burrito making station, and clients practicing not just making burritos, but the vocabulary that comes with it, and those intangibles and soft skills that go along with it,” says Kasra Movahedi, technical advisor for the IRC’s economic empowerment programs.

Ngoma, who was attending a university in the Congo when he and his wife fled, might have been qualified for different work, though he struggled with English. But his employment advisors recognized that his intelligence and drive were a good fit for Chipotle. “They work with refugees in their program who will fit well in our culture and with what we look for,” says Chris Arnold, communications director for Chipotle. “As a result, we hire very effectively with the IRC program.”

Chipotle has an unusually meritocratic promotion system, and Ngoma was able to quickly get promoted based on skill and dedication. For Ngoma, the job has changed everything.


“I’m not feeling anymore like a refugee,” he says. “I’m feeling like I’m living my life.” It’s also given Chipotle an intensely loyal employee.

Other businesses also say that working with refugees isn’t charity, it’s good business. Starwood, the hotel company, hires refugees for a variety of jobs, from housekeeping to management. Through their foundation, they’re also piloting new hospitality training centers in Dallas and San Diego, where refugees will be able to learn specific skills, like practice dealing with customers.

“We do sometimes need to increase up-front training for our refugee recruits,” says Starwood’s associate director of community partnerships and global citizenship Kristin Meyer. “But the dedication and passion they bring to the job definitely outweighs that investment.”

Some businesses that work with refugees ended up doing it partly by chance. Overstockart, an online store based in Kansas City, learned about the IRC program when a refugee from Eritrea applied for a warehouse job listing.

“It was a little bit of a leap of faith, because our normal questioning and our normal type of thing that we would do to vet an employee were not there,” says CEO David Sasson. There were no references to call.

After a rough beginning–the refugee hadn’t worked for years, and didn’t initially understand the expected pace of work in the warehouse–he became a great employee, and the company decided to recruit more refugees. Today, out of the business’s 15 employees, five are refugees.


Other companies have worked on the problem more deliberately. At Chobani–whose Kurdish CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, has committed the majority of his personal wealth to ending the refugee crisis–the company started hiring refugees soon after it started to grow. Resettled refugees now make up 30% of the company’s employees. This, however, isn’t without political challenges: Chobani has faced criticism and calls for boycotts from conservatives who argue that the company is taking jobs from American-born workers.

In Europe, jobs are harder to come by

Most refugees in the U.S. do quickly get jobs: 82% of the refugees the IRC works with are self-sufficient through employment in six months or less. While there’s room for more companies to participate in refugee employment programs, it’s limited by the fact that the U.S. resettles a relatively small number of refugees now.

In Europe, where more than a million refugees and migrants arrived in 2015, the situation is different. In addition to the obvious issues of scale, when refugees are resettled in the U.S., they can legally work. Asylum seekers in Germany or Sweden have to wait months before their paperwork is ready and they can get a job.

Many companies are offering refugees internships as they wait. Linkedin launched a pilot project in February, called #WelcomeTalent, to help refugees in Sweden set up profiles and connect them with companies offering internships. A microsite on Linkedin gives refugees extra guidance; without this kind of advice, the job market is difficult for new arrivals to navigate.

“Here in Sweden, they want many things,” says Hadeel Kadhm, a refugee from Iraq who arrived eight months ago and who found an internship through #WelcomeTalent. “One thing is they require a reference letter. Since refugees are new to Sweden, they don’t know anything about what is happening with the labor market. It’s really hard for people to find an internship or job.”

In Berlin, a project called ReDi School of Digital Integration teaches coding skills to refugees and connects them with mentors in the tech industry while they wait for their asylum paperwork, which can take seven months to more than a year. ReDi School founder Anne Kjaer Riechert says that programs that tackle this gap are crucial to helping new arrivals integrate into a new society. The project has started working directly with companies like Mercedes, which gave students creative tasks like brainstorming ideas for the company’s showrooms.


“It’s not corporate social responsibility,” says Riechert. “It’s really the innovation department. So from Mercedes’ perspective, they believe that in order to come up with new ideas and to create new solutions, you need to work outside your normal target group.”

While in the program, refugees have also begun to launch their own businesses. A new app called Bureaucrazy, for example, helps other refugees navigate the bureaucratic system. A tech-supported catering service called Jasmin gives illiterate Syrian women cooking jobs. Another helps Germans and newly arrived refugees connect over shared interests.

Initially, the school didn’t think entrepreneurship would be a primary focus, because of the challenges of starting a business in a new country. But as they saw educated refugees struggle to get jobs the traditional route, new businesses made more sense, Riechert says.

In Germany, Angela Merkel recently pushed for more large companies to hire refugees; as of June, the 30 largest companies had only hired 54 refugees. Some, like the engineering company Siemens, are mostly offering internships (about 100 of them) as refugees go through the asylum application process.

As with many other companies, the motivation is part corporate responsibility and partly a business decision, says Rosa Riera, VP of employer branding and social innovation. Some interns have already been hired. “What we can do is to help level the playing field,” she says.

Merkel plans to meet with Siemens and other firms to talk about how their pilot projects can be examples for the rest of the private sector in Germany. But there is a long way to go and the quality of jobs matters, too. In the U.S., refugees getting paid minimum wage are going to struggle to live as much as a typical low-wage worker.


Still, a job is an important first step. Back in the U.S., the Partnership for Refugees is also working to involve more companies. “There’s no company that’s too small or too big that can’t be involved and make an impact,” says Patterson.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."