“With activities like our joint cooking sessions, we are creating a platform where Volkswagen employees and refugees can get to know one another in a casual setting.”
Carmen sticks a leek stalk in Mohammed’s face and pretends to interview him: “And how would you answer this question?” Everyone chuckles. The mood is relaxed and natural. Mohammed comes from the Sudan and just started learning German a few months ago. But with the help of some humorous gestures and Carmen’s simple choice of words, he can already understand a lot. “Cooking together is like singing together – it always works out somehow and brings people together,” Ilse says as she adds a pinch of German wisdom to the get-together.
What’s special: Carmen, Mohammed and Ilse are not whipping up something in their kitchen at home. Rather, they are preparing food in the Autostadt in Wolfsburg. Their close encounter in the kitchen is one aspect of the Volkswagen Group's Refugee Assistance Program that is designed to bring together Germans and immigrants. The chefs include six employees of the automaker and the same number of refugees from a range of other countries who have found homes in the Wolfsburg area.
The refugees include Zahia from Syria, a mother of five children who is bent over a pot filled with potatoes and demurely smiling. She does not want to say a whole lot about her flight from her home. But she does say this much: When her family reached Germany, the only thing she had was the clothes on her back. “But, now, everything is fine,” Zahia says. “Everything is good since we came to Germany.”
“Our aim is to break down inhibitions. Once the ice is broken, everything else generally takes care of itself.”
The 16-year-old Marwan from Iraq is busy cooking at another stove. Even though he has been in Germany for just one year, the young Yazidi already speaks excellent German and strikes up a conversation with the other cooks in no time. His name tag bears the name of “Mario” instead of “Marwan.” “My name sounds too Arabic. This is easier for the Germans,” he says. Even though Marwan's new home is filled with many new things, he runs into something familiar over and over again. To everyone's astonishment, he explains that the Yazidis in Iraq also dye and hide their Easter eggs. The country may be new, but the customs don’t always have to be…
“With activities like our joint cooking sessions, we are creating a platform where Volkswagen employees and refugees can get to know one another in a casual setting,” says Maria Mende of the Volkswagen Group's Refugee Assistance Program. Before Christmas, tickets could be won in the company's intranet for get-togethers between employees and refugees. Regional partners supported the program by providing free tickets for approximately 300 people – including an ice hockey game, the scientific adventure world Phaeno and the cooking course in the Autostadt in Wolfsburg. “Our events always take place in small groups. That way everybody can talk with each other,” Maria Mende says. “Our aim is to break down inhibitions. Once the ice is broken, everything else generally takes care of itself.”
Total Integration Takes a Long Time
The Volkswagen Group launched the Refugee Assistance Program in 2015. What is the focus of the refugee program?
We initially concentrated on providing emergency assistance – we found helpers for refugee accommodations, provided vehicles and collected money and in-kind donations. The greatest need we are seeing now is language acquisition and pre-qualifications – these are the keys to an individual's ability to attend training courses and his or her occupational integration.
What is the refugee program doing in this area?
Through its brands, the Volkswagen Group is offering language courses to more than 1,400 refugees. About 340 people have taken part in brief internships and job-shadowing programs. An additional 870 refugees were able to attend occupational orientation programs and to undergo skills evaluation. In addition, the Volkswagen Group's Refugee Assistance Program is financing 100 scholarships for the online education course at Kiron University for refugees.
What are some of the truly memorable experiences that have occurred during work thus far?
During our work, we repeatedly get to know refugees who learn German very quickly and are extremely motivated to become socially integrated. These stories impress us over and over again. We are just as excited about the commitment of many Volkswagen employees who serve as volunteers in our refugee program – providing fresh ideas and tremendous amounts of stamina. Something that one of the volunteers said really stands out: When you give something, you unexpectedly get much back – sometimes even friendship. Such realizations motivate you. After all, integration is a long journey, and it will take a long time for everybody involved.