Dossier Social Innovation

"I get to send in my business plan"

Could you mention some things that strike you as typically Dutch? It takes a while this morning before the first few answers come, but pretty soon the list on the board begins to grow rapidly: quiet streets in the evening – people that are very curious – prosperity – bureaucracy – appointment books – the ‘g’-sound you cannot pronounce – individualism. It is quite clear from the start that the class that professor of entrepreneurship development Josette Dijkhuizen is teaching today consists of interested and highly educated people.


Refugee Training Day at Tilburg University/TIAS – November 2016

The class is made up of some thirty refugees, most of them from Syria. They used to have good jobs there. Among them is a dentist, a lawyer, a hotel manager, an ICT specialist, a philosopher, an agricultural engineer, and a marketer.  Most of them are men, but there are a few women as well. In the one-and-a-half-hour class, Dijkhuizen tells them about Dutch individualism, its increasingly feminine-oriented society, the ‘polder model’, the high-tech region in Brabant, and Dutch openness.

A though start? “Educational,” is Esmail Jonawaz’s reaction. He is a logistics manager from Iran, who used to work in the oil industry. He asked for Dijkhuizen’s e-mail address right after class. “She’s asked me to send in my business plan.” Jonawaz has obviously taken Dijkhuizen’s message to heart: “Keep asking questions”, she says, but she hastens to add and stresses: “Be patient as well.”

Anyone taking this class cannot help but be impressed by the refugees’ eagerness for knowledge and contacts. They would love to have a job, a traineeship, or to do volunteer work. But that is easier said than done. Jobs are hard to find as it is, even more so if you do not speak the language yet, if you do not have a network, if employers do not know the value of your diploma, and if you are not very familiar yet with Dutch manners and customs.

Resilient society

Training Day initiator Geert-Jan Peters, business development manager at Tilburg University: “I thought: That is where we can help with our knowledge of the labor market.” After conferring with his colleagues and consulting Vluchtelingenwerk (SNV) - the Dutch Refugee Council - the idea of a Training Day soon emerged, an idea that was embraced by the university. “There will always be problems. How society addresses these problems – the resilient society – is one of the spearheads of this university,” says professor of labor market dynamics Ton Wilthagen in his word of welcome on behalf of Rector Magnificus Emile Aarts. The result is that today’s is already the second Training Day in what will hopefully grow into a whole series of them. Peters: “Nearly half of the participants in the first Training Day have already found a traineeship or a job.’’

In the exercise ‘What do you feel most comfortable with?’ refugees have to choose between ‘flexible’ and ‘persevere’ which turns out to be a tough choice. “If I were not both flexible and persevering I would not be here." But as it turns out – so we are assured - there is no right or wrong answer. The main point of the exercise is to get everybody to reflect on characteristics that employers find important. “In a job interview,” so the participants are told, “who you are is at least as important as your specific expertise.”

Mohammad Mansour, jurist en Achmad Zibi, ICT'er

Mohammad Mansour was a lawyer in Aleppo, Achmad Zibi was an ICT specialist in Damascus. And yes, they both came in one of those small boats. Achmad was in one of them for as many as 38 hours. His boat was sinking when he was rescued. Their wives and children are here, but their parents stayed behind in Syria. Can they manage to focus their attention and stay concentrated at all? “You are always here and there at the same time,” Achmad explains. “But today my focus is here. For Syrians now, living more than anything means passing on life. My children are safe. That is the most important thing.”

Competence Card

After this, the class start on filling out their competence cards, a new online tool for job applications developed at Tilburg University in cooperation with the City of Tilburg. How does this card offer more than a regular CV? “For one thing, the tool automatically indicates the Dutch equivalent of your education,“ initiator and labor market expert Ronald Lievens explains, ‘but most importantly, it gets people to reflect on their talents, their goals, and their aspirations. A CV should not be limited to a summary of your educational background and your job experience.” Getting the participants to fill out the card at once also constitutes the final test phase of the development of the competence card. Other municipalities have already shown they are interested, so Lievens tells us.

The day is concluded with the most exciting part: speed dating. Thirteen companies and organizations have come to make the participants’ acquaintance. It is a wide range of employers, from housing corporation WonenBreburg, volunteer organization Portagora and automation company Axit to Deloitte accountancy. “The experience of the accountants in this group is different from what we are looking for," Ben Minten of Deloitte tells us afterwards, “but we do business with a great many companies, so I have been able to give them a lot of tips.”

When the day is over, Khlood Alsawaf, teacher of Arabic in Syria, tells us he has learned a lot. “The demand is mainly for interpreters from Dutch to Arabic, so I hope it won’t be long before I can start taking Dutch lessons.” Young Negah Ismail had an interesting speed date with Tilburg University, but she emphasizes that the whole day had been useful, and exciting. “I fled the country alone, so I have to arrange a great many things myself. As an Afghan woman that takes a little getting used to, but this is another step in the direction of my goal, which is to study.”