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Involved out of Conviction

What connects us regardless of where we come from? Female Volkswagen employees and student refugees met for a discussion at the “Mentor for a day” workshop. An example of Volkswagen’s long-term efforts to assist refugees.

It’s a short sentence, yet the seminar room in Wolfsburg goes quiet for a few seconds after Sajida Altaia has said it: “I came to Germany because of war and bombs in my city.” The young Syrian woman reflects for a moment and adds: “I had begun my civil engineering studies two months earlier. Now I’m studying computer science.”

Relaxed mood at the “Mentor for a day” workshop, which is part of the “Women Empowerment Program”. This program particularly supports refugee women as they become established in Germany.

Sajida Altaia’s brief self-introduction is part of the “Mentor for a day” workshop. Her audience consists of other women refugees and Volkswagen employees. The German women have assumed the roles of mentors for the day, providing advice and support. “Today in this room, women refugees have the opportunity to engage in concentrated dialogs with female Volkswagen employees, to network and gain insights into the German way of life at work,” says Christiane Mohnhaupt, Volkswagen Refugee Support.

The interaction is part of the cooperation between non-profit start-up “Kiron Open Higher Education” and Volkswagen. Kiron runs an educational platform on which refugees can start online courses of study. Volkswagen sponsors 150 scholarships for informatics and engineering studies. Katharina Urban, project leader at Kiron: “We are very grateful that Volkswagen is supporting us, especially because it’s a partnership that really works well in practice. Volkswagen doesn’t simply talk the talk, but also walks the walk. This workshop is a prime example of that: People with all different kinds of backgrounds meet here on an equal footing.” 

Intensive discussions about cultural differences in professional life: Gamze Umac and Jasmin Krabat (right) at the “Mentor for a day” workshop.

How do you notice that people like each other even when they don’t understand a word of what the other is saying? One word leads to another in the case of Gamze Umac und Jasmin Krabat. Gamze Umac fled from Ankara, Turkey; Jasmin Krabat comes from Braunschweig and works in the HR department at Volkswagen – and both have a lot of questions. Questions about personal history, the road to Germany and a career at Volkswagen, about hopes and dreams. They talk about these things in one-on-one conversation when the attendees form groups of two in order to have an intensive hour-long dialog – and there is a lot of laughter during their exchange. 

“There are a lot of differences, sure. But when we know them, then we can accept them much more readily.”

Jasmin Krabat

The boundary between mentor and mentee is fluid; each one learns from the other in this discussion; both share their wealth of experience. “The cultural differences that we defined today were sometimes actually in the small things: gestures, facial expressions, behaviour. There are a lot of differences, sure. But when we know them, then we can accept them much more readily,” Jasmin Krabat says later.

Integration is a long process that thrives on precisely such gatherings and insights like these, as the women discovered at the “Mentor of the day” workshop. “Integration takes time,” says Ariane Kilian, Coordinator of Volkswagen Group’s Refugee Support. “It takes seven or eight years, minimum, until someone truly feels comfortable in a foreign country. That doesn’t happen overnight.” It’s also the reason that Volkswagen’s commitment isn’t just a fleeting fad. “The refugee work that Volkswagen does is sustained and long-term. That’s what makes it so fascinating to me. We have projects that run several years and mesh with each other, like the collaboration with Kiron. It’s really great meeting a few of the refugees again after a year and seeing how they are coming along and settling in one step at a time.”

Leading discussions at the “Mentor for a day” workshop: Business Administration student Wafaa Al Monayer (left) and Christiane Mohnhaupt, Refugee Support Volkswagen (right)

There’s a reason that only women are attending this Kiron and Volkswagen workshop: in 2019, Volkswagen launched its “Women Empowerment Program”. The aim of the program is to support women refugees. The role of women in the working world is also discussed at the workshop. The participants write down the names of “role models in my life” on large sticky notes: they name the (female) boss, grandma and sister – more women than men. One note, however, stands out: it reads “Deutschland”.

“Assuming social responsibility is core to our company culture,” says Ariane Kilian. That’s the reason Volkswagen contributes emergency assistance and integration services for refugees. To this end, the Group has created a unit under the purview of the HR board of management. It coordinates cross-brand Refugee Support projects, initiates and carries out measures and networks with other active companies, associations and relief organizations.  “We try to reach socially vulnerable people with many of the projects, or to do our part to see that good solutions for social issues are found through solidarity between businesses and civil society,” Ariane Kilian says. “The involvement with Refugee Support is a component of this work, which we are very happy to do.” Initially the focus was on emergency assistance, but in the meantime, the Volkswagen Group sees a greater need in the areas of language acquisition and pre-qualification for employment, the keys to participating in vocational and educational programs as well as workplace integration. 

“Integration doesn’t happen overnight,” says Ariane Kilian, Coordinator of the Volkswagen Group’s Refugee Support. That’s the reason Volkswagen has committed itself for the long-term.

Everyone pays particularly close attention to 24-year-old Wafaa Al Monayer from Syria at the “Mentor for a day” workshop. She was the first to complete her study course at Kiron successfully and make the leap from there to Essen University Duisburg. She is now studying Business Administration. The 24-year-old Syrian leads the discussion round on “networks” at “Mentor of the day” and shares her experiences with the other refugee women. She knows the obstacles that beginning students have to face all too well, and she knows about the energy and endurance needed to learn “good German”. “It requires a lot of dedication. You especially have to have the confidence to speak.” Wafaa Al Monayer did just that – and even found herself in a discussion group with Angela Merkel at one point. The attendees learn one thing in particular from her: it’s also about having courage, especially as a woman, and sticking to your path. Wafaa Al Monayer: “This workshop organized by Volkswagen is great, because here you develop the self-confidence you need in life.”

  • “Kiron Open Higher Education”

    The Volkswagen Group has been supporting the non-profit start-up “Kiron Open Higher Education” since 2016. Kiron runs an education platform on which refugees can start online courses of study. After two years, the online program then provides them the opportunity to enroll at one of more than fifty partner universities, where they can obtain academic degrees.