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CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

How a refugee-run factory is helping the Netherlands meet its need for face masks

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dutch entrepreneurs teamed up with a work-learn programme for refugees to create the Netherlands' first face mask factory.

How a refugee-run factory is helping the Netherlands meet its need for face masks
Like many countries, the Netherlands found itself short of medical face masks when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. File photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Why be dependent on factories on the other side of the world if you can produce face masks locally?

That’s exactly what Dutch entrepreneurs Jaap Stelwagen, Fleur Bakker, Johan Blom and Naz Kawan thought in March. The Netherlands, like many other countries at the time, was dealing with a big deficit of surgical face masks.

Stelwagen, who lived in China, together with his wife who is originally from China, called several people there to ask whether it would be possible to get material. Bakker’s sister, a KLM pilot, managed to get hold of a roll of melt-blown fabric that you need to make face masks, and brought it to the Netherlands on a plane full of other health equipment. Later that month, on one of the few flights that were running at the time, two face mask machines flew 7,000 kilometres to Amsterdam.

But who would operate them?

Refugee Company, already had a sewing workshop and restaurants in place where people with a refugee background were able to acquire work experience. And yes, that is spelled correctly: the entrepreneurs of Refugee Company don’t want to focus on refugees, but on the work they do.

“As a response to the pandemic,” project spokesperson Peter-Paul de Jong explains, “we decided to set up a face mask factory: the Mondmaskerfabriek.” Located in the city of Arnhem, it mainly employs people with a refugee background to make surgical face masks.

“The project not only responded to the deficit of masks in Dutch healthcare,” de Jong explains, “but also provides people with a refugee background with work experience and knowledge about the labour market in the Netherlands.”

Firas al Naif, 33, is one of the employees in the factory. “I’m doing different tasks,” he says. “I for example have to make sure the masks are properly wrapped and check if the machines work.” It is all new for Al Naif, as in Syria, he worked as a biology teacher. “I wasn’t used to doing technical tasks. The first month was pretty hard, but now it’s going really well.”

The factory employs 24 people with a refugee background – with a contract. All but one of them also take part in an extra training scheme. “We have a paid four-hour programme next to work, in which we can improve our language and become more familiar with the labour market, and we make for example a CV, application letters, we see how you can find work,” says Al Naif.

READ ALSO: How translators in the Netherlands are making Covid-19 information more accessible

The Mondmaskerfabriek puts 70 percent of its profit back into the company. “This way, we can employ more people, protect healthcare professionals and keep the production local,” they write on their website. The project was made possible by loans and donations from among others, Philips Foundation, Qredits and the Rabobank.

“What differentiates this project to others,” de Jong adds, “is that we have a unique combination of helping people with a refugee background and responding to a need of society.”

In 2019, 30 percent of the refugees in the Netherlands were working, an improvement from the year before when it was only 17 percent, according to by Divosa, an association of municipal directors working in social inclusion and employment issues.

Covid-19 might turn these positive developments around. “We warn for decreasing trends in 2020,” says Chrisje Meinders, spokesperson for Divosa. “Refugees are usually the first group to notice dips in the labour market.”

“The one thing I like most about this work is solving problems,” says Al Naif. “If there is a problem with the machine from China, I like to look for ways to get it working again.”

And there were other problems, de Jong explains. After the challenges of getting the right machines and material, the next problem arose: getting certification to create surgical face masks for healthcare professionals. In order to be used in the healthcare sector, the face masks have to be certified by a laboratory to say they meet strict standards. And that took some time.

MORE FROM THIS SERIES:

Al Naif thinks the factory where he’s working is a nice place. But it isn’t perfect. As the building is old, ventilation is a problem and it’s hard to get it up to the antibacterial standards, Bakker writes on the website. The location caused occasional deviations that stood in the way of the factory’s certification.

The project tried different ways to ensure the masks were up to medical standards, including sterilizing them with gamma radiation and setting up a special sterile production room within the factory with purified air and an antibacterial floor.

In mid October the certification was acquired and the factory started supplying the Dutch centralized point for healthcare products (Landelijk Consortium Hulpmiddelen or National Consortium of Resources), with which a deal was made earlier this year.

“That distinguishes the Mondmaskerfabriek from other projects from Refugee Company,” de Jong explains, “as we can use the profits to pay employees, instead of mainly relying on funds and donations.”


L to R: Firas, Efrem and Milad celebrating the mask factory's certification. Photo courtesy of Mondmaskerfabriek

“This project seems to do its job very well,” says Tesseltje de Lange, professor of Sociology of Law and Migration Law at Radboud University. “Refugee Company creates work and prepares refugees for the Dutch labour market.”

And that can be hard. The main problem usually is communication. “Employers often overlook how much time it takes to work with refugees,” says de Lange, who researches the labour market integration of migrants and refugees. “Intercultural differences are often bigger than they think. Initiatives like this deliberately take the time to address these issues.”

Research she conducted in 2017 stresses the importance for refugees of finding work early, as finding work is always easier when you’re already doing something.

“Working in the Mondmaskerfabriek is different than working in a supermarket,” Al Naif explains. “Having colleagues from so many different backgrounds is nice, and the atmosphere and coaching is good.”

“I love how much I learned about technology,” he says. But he would rather be a biology teacher again. “When my Dutch is good enough, I want to go back to the classroom.”

Michal van der Toorn is a freelance journalist from the Netherlands. She graduated from the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Master’s, and has a special interest in radio, podcasts and conflict resolution.

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CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.

MORE IN THIS SERIES:

Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.

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