A new life for refugees


BY JOANNA LE PLUART

When it comes to refugees, the media generally focuses on their long, arduous journey to safety. But the story doesn’t end there. The next chapter is about building a new life. This too can be a long, arduous journey for many.

Here, we report on two things IKEA is doing to help refugees gain a foothold in their new homes.

Sunrise in a refugee camp, the tents and a few refugees silhouetted against the horizon.

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Partnership in Jordan

Last year, a team led by Anne-Sofie Gunnarsson from IKEA of Sweden’s Next Generation Social Entrepreneurs visited Jordan to see what they could do to help the vast numbers of Syrian refugees who had fled there. Having assessed the situation, they decided to enter into partnership with the Jordan River Foundation, a social enterprise chaired by the country’s American-born Queen, Noor Al-Hussein.

The partnership kicked off in April 2017 with a design workshop, run by IKEA product developer Stina Engler, IKEA textile designer Paulin Machado and Jordan River Foundation’s designer Faridon Abida. Together, the designers came up with a series of ideas for embroidered textiles, cushion covers, floor cushions and handmade carpets – all of which could be made locally. Now, just a few months later, 50 Jordanian women and 50 mainly Syrian women are involved in producing this first collection of fun, colourful soft furnishings.

IKEA designer Paulin Machado and Jordanian designer Faridon Abida sitting on the floor watching refugee women weaving.

IKEA designer Paulin Machado with Jordanian designer Faridon Abida watching the art of weaving.

Persuasive products

The new collection is called TILLTALANDE, and is due for launch in December 2017 in the IKEA store in Amman, the capital of Jordan, before being rolled out across the Middle East during spring and to other big city stores. Featuring playful motifs like 3D cacti, camels and hand-embroidered eyes, TILLTALANDE has already caught the attention of the IKEA stores in New York and will go on sale there in June 2018 to coincide with International Refugee Day.

Production in Jordan is now being ramped up from 100 to 400 people, and a second collection is planned.

Making it work

To what does Anne-Sofie attribute the success of this venture? “One vital ingredient is training; not only in the manual skills like embroidery and carpet making, but also cultural and life skills training. A second is mixing local people with refugees, which not only brings additional skills to the team but also aids social integration and crucially, benefits the host community. And finally, working with an established social entrepreneur accelerates our efforts considerably. The Jordan River Foundation already had a strong presence on the ground, which meant they could guarantee both working conditions and quality standards.”

Close ups of the cactus and camel motifs featured in the IKEA TILLTALANDE collection.
Close up of hands sketching the patterns used in the IKEA TILLTALANDE collection.

Sketching on site, the making of the TILLTALANDE collection in Jordan.

Internships in Switzerland

IKEA Switzerland is helping integrate refugees in a slightly different way. Says IKEA Sustainability Specialist Roxana Schwartz, “Back in 2015, when the refugee crisis was exploding in Europe, we considered donating money or products. But the Swiss authorities assured us that the refugees’ basic needs were already being met, and that the main challenge was getting them jobs. About 80% of refugees here are unemployed.”

IKEA co-workers together with an intern on the shop floor of an IKEA store.
Co-workers get a chance to air their concerns and discuss everyday incidents in the work place.

– Roxana Schwartz, Sustainability Specialist IKEA Switzerland

Focus on integration

Based on this information, IKEA Switzerland set up its first internship program in May 2016, offering six months of on-the-job training to refugees in the country’s nine stores. Since then, 18 people have been through the internship program every half year. Six were hired from the first round of internships and two went on to do further apprenticeships.

Roxana explains, “Although the Internship program can and does lead to employment in some cases, its main focus is integration. We want to show refugees how things work in Switzerland, to provide them with valuable experience and cultural training – two things that will help them get and keep other jobs more easily in the future.”

The magic ingredient?

To pre-empt any negativity about the program, IKEA Switzerland held sessions for co-workers, to talk about the refugees’ backgrounds, and explain why IKEA was supporting them. “We gave co-workers a completely open forum,” says Roxana, “in which they could not only learn about the refugees, but also get a chance to air their concerns and discuss everyday incidents in the work place.” This, she feels, may be the magic ingredient that allowed the program to run so smoothly. “Our co-workers are both patient and helpful,” says Roxana, “since they understand what they’re doing and why.”


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