Rebuilding careers: Professionals that challenge the refugee label

Students from Esade Law School, under the coordination of Professor Manolo Garbayo, collaborate with HP to offer a training course aimed at refugee professionals in Barcelona.

Manel Domingo

Although it is not her native language, Victoria expresses herself clearly and confidently in Spanish. When she believes that words are not enough, she transforms them into images. “It comes from my profession,” she says with pride. Having developed a successful long-standing career as a project manager in the audiovisual industry, she likes to employ the expressive resources of advertising, television, and cinema, her true passion. Through her work, she has lived in 11 countries, she speaks 8 languages, and she is used to solving the most challenging problems and connecting with all kinds of people. 

Given her background, those who know Victoria were never in any doubt that she would easily adapt to her new life in Barcelona. And yet, since her arrival from Ukraine as a refugee, she has not been able to find employment. “I am only offered work cleaning flats or looking after old people...,” she explains. “I feel more comfortable working in a company, doing the things I am good at.” She does not hide the fact that, on occasions, the lack of employment prospects gnaws away at her self-esteem. 

Victoria's case is not unusual. Lina finds herself in a similar position. A specialist in strategic planning and marketing, she used to work in public administration in Afghanistan. Then there is Inna, who with 10 years' experience as an economist is now trying her luck with customer service. And Fadile, who barely has time to continue her career in human resources, because she works almost 60 hours a week as a waitress and barista. 

I feel more comfortable working in a company, doing the things I am good at

Though they came from very different countries, the challenges they face are similar to. They arrive here with an exceptional résumé, but having overcome the language barrier and negotiated the initial labyrinth of bureaucracy, they find that their qualifications cannot be validated, their work experience is not valued, and they lack any kind of professional network. They cannot find opportunities to make a contribution using their natural strengths. 

Victoria, Lina, Inna, and Fadile met each other on a professional and digital training course that seeks to redress these anomalies. The course has been designed by Esade students within the framework of the Building Digital Equity initiative, in which Esade and HP are working together to provide 80 refugee women with training in 2024. The Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR) and the social impact consulting firm Win-Win Connection are also contributing to the project, and they have helped university, company and students to connect.  

An initiative in which everyone wins

The content of the course is divided into 5 modules focused on boosting confidence and self-esteem, defining personal and professional goals, learning effective communication techniques, understanding the keys to gaining access to the employment market, and the importance of networking for social and professional integration. The training is complemented by learning about digital tools. 

The key players who have made this project possible are the Esade Law School students who have designed the content. In this task, they have been supported by coaches from HP, who have subsequently been responsible for teaching the course. Esade lecturer Manolo Garbayo and Marta Vernet Yll, from Win-Win Connection, are the driving force behind this academic initiative, now in its second year. His objective is to facilitate collaboration between university, company and third sector in a project that will have a direct impact on improving people's lives.  

We contribute what we can and we learn so much in the process

“In barely 10 weeks, these students have done an incredible job,” observes Garbayo, who teaches an optional subject wholly aimed at designing this course. One of his students, Alicia, arrived here determined to return part of the input she was receiving during her studies. She comments: “This is a clear win-win. We contribute what we can and we learn so much in the process.” For Nico, the experience has enabled him to put a face “to the people behind the statistics and the geopolitical analyses.” 

For her part, Inés recognizes that meeting the women has changed the idea she had of a refugee. “I have been surprised by how highly qualified and experienced they are. When they arrive here, none of the work they have done in the past is acknowledged,” she says. For Izan, the initiative has served to demystify corporate social responsibility, on occasions disregarded as a marketing strategy. “I have found highly motivated people who want to help,” he observes.  

Isabella Delle Donna and Victoria Urban are the project managers from HP. Their goal was to “help these women to recover their strength and confidence, so that they are well prepared to look to the future.” Having finished the course, they are unsure about who has benefited most. “We have learned a lot from their strength and motivation, from their capacity to manage such a difficult situation,” they note. Both are convinced that, just as it is vital for the public sector to concern itself with the welfare of refugees, more initiatives like this one are also necessary from companies that have the resources to become involved. 

The weight of labels

After a week of the course, Inna says she has new knowledge and feels more confident: “I'm clearer about things and I want to do more. I've got a new mindset,” she observes. Fadile comments: “Before, I used to think I was very unlucky, but I've connected with others in the same situation as me; I don't feel so alone now, and I can see that my problem is not so unusual.” For Lina, the experience has been both exhausting and rewarding: “I've learned many useful things, but I've also made new contacts and discovered that we had very similar concerns.”  

For her part, Viktoria says that by the second day she was already moved by the initiative. She feels the key achievement has been that, together, they managed to create a space in which they could free themselves of the stigma imposed on them. “We are often burdened with the label of being poor refugees, and people assume we are uneducated and unskilled... Here, we have been able to discard this label for a week.” Once again, she draws on images. “It's as if someone has waved a magic wand to make all your insecurities disappear.” 

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