Swiss Rotary clubs help young refugees start new lives

Eid was one of more than 80 million people around the world who had fled war or persecution as of mid-2020, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Of those, about 40% were under age 18.

Rotary clubs in the Swiss canton of Zurich started ROBIJ, which stands for “Rotarians for the Vocational Integration of Youth.” Their goals were to prepare young refugees for a range of careers, especially in skilled trades, to find them internships and apprenticeships, and to help them integrate into their adopted country for the long term. The project works with 35 trade organizations and 28 refugee organizations that are active in the canton.

So far, six refugees have found apprenticeships and 21 others have been placed in trial internships through ROBIJ. During three career exploration days, 190 refugees have been able to meet with representatives from trade organizations and learn about job opportunities. A video has also been created to teach refugees about the skills and attitudes that companies value.

During ROBIJ exploration days, up to 50 young people visit a company, and its employees and trainers explain what it’s like to work in that profession.

“Personal contact with the trainers and company bosses is very important here. This reduces prejudices and mutual reservations and opens doors for internships and apprenticeships,” explains Marianne Hopsch, of the Rotary Club of Zürich City, president and a co-founder of ROBIJ.

It opened my eyes about what a dramatic escape some of these young people have had.

Andreas Rüegg

The Rotary clubs see their effort less as a traditional career fair and more as a bridge builder.

“We look at what needs and expectations exist on all sides, help where something is not yet working properly or where misunderstandings exist, and make the right contacts,” says Hopsch, who estimates that she invests about 70% of her work time on the project. “The main work consists of building up a basis of trust with the refugee organizations, which after all bear special responsibility for the minors, and the constant acquisition of new training companies.”

The financial outlay is modest, because the government pays for the refugees’ accommodations, meals, and schooling. The companies largely cover the costs of the vocational training. Since the project started in April 2018, a total of just over 3,500 Swiss francs (about $3,900) has been spent on networking events with sponsors, refugee organizations, and companies, as well as on travel.

The concept immediately persuaded Andreas Rüegg, a member of the Rotary Club of Zürich Turicum and the owner of a company that plans and oversees utilities for new construction, to get involved.