PARIS — "Hey, that's pretty!" "How's the train?" In this Parisian shop in the 17th arrondissement, a soon-to-be bride is trying on a long satin dress. The candy-pink boudoir is filled with luxurious materials, Calais embroidered collars, lace bustiers and silk chiffon fabrics.
Behind a pile of heavy rolls of cloth, Hafiz Ghanbari, dressed in an impeccable shirt and suit pants, is working on his sewing machine. "Yes, it's a dream job," he admits shyly amid two clanks. This 27-year-old Afghan refugee has been through a lot. He fled war in his hometown of Ghanzi, Afghanistan, when he was 9. "My family was in danger there. I was afraid I was going to die," he remembers. He's a member of the Hazara community, persecuted by the Taliban. After 15 years in exile in Iran, where he learned to sew in carpet shops, he moved to Norway and worked odd jobs, until finally obtaining asylum in France in 2015.
With his refugee status, he can now work — a relief for this self-taught upholsterer, whose wife, father and sister still live in Afghanistan. "I had to earn money at any cost so I could integrate," he says.
I didn't chose Hafiz because he's a refugee, but because he's talented.
Ghanbari has been working for the last six months in this bridal dress shop, thanks to the digital platform Action Emploi Réfugiés (AERé). "The founder of the website spotted my profile. She called me and offered to send my resume," he says.
The tailor quickly caught the attention of several recruiters. He got a one-year contract in a sewing workshop and helped create a clothing collection. In September, his profile caught the eye of the wedding dress designer Marie Laporte. "It was the first time I heard about such a procedure. I hesitated at first, it's true, but I needed someone. I didn't chose Hafiz because he's a refugee, but because he's talented," the young entrepreneur says.
A talent pool
Created a year ago, AERé's goal is to help "exiled talents" find jobs in France.
"Work is the first factor for integration. Our approach is a pragmatic one, these people are trained, sometimes highly educated and qualified. It's a talent pool," says the co-founder, Kavita Brahmbhatt, a UN consultant who worked with refugees for 15 years. Doctors, professors, engineers, kitchen chefs, or florists, their journeys are all very different. The platform has already received more than 450 refugee applications.
To register, job-seekers simply upload their resume or create one on the website. They are then referenced according to their location, qualifications, languages, etc. Recruiters just need to choose. "We wanted to create a simple and innovative solution, using the matchmaking technique, so applicants and recruiters could meet according to their skills," says Brahmbhatt, a Kenyan-born Briton and the association's co-president. "Fifty companies have joined the network," she says, and since the launch, 150 refugees have found jobs.
Working to integrate
For employers, recruiting someone who speaks only a foreign language can be tricky. "I was a bit worried at first because of the language, but Hafiz is a fast learner. He writes all the technical words down and memorizes them. He also uses drawings and hand gestures to get his message across," Marie Laporte explains, amused.
Both for the two enthusiasts, words are mostly unnecessary. They already speak the same language: the fashion language. "He's got a skilled hand, as they say. His movements are precise and quick," his employer observes admiringly. For the young tailor, going from Afghan tapestry workshops to a French designer's showroom was unimaginable; an exceptional journey that has pushed him to prove himself. "I have to double my efforts here, work harder. It's not easy because of the language barrier, but I want to stay here. I don't want to go back to Afghanistan," confides Ghanbari, who takes French lessons on the weekends.
The refugees come here and fill positions no one else wants.
He lives in a seven-square-meter room in public housing in the Val-d'Oise department, north of Paris, about 30 minutes from his workplace.
"Refugees are very resourceful. They have lived through horrors, fled their country to come here. Learning a new language is not the worst thing they have to face," says Brahmbhatt.
In order to be able to work, some do not hesitate to change professions. The platform has many ads for jobs in the food industry and manufacturing. "The refugees come here and fill positions no one else wants, like in construction, services, difficult jobs," says El Mouhoud Mouhoud, an economics professor at Paris-Dauphine University.
But prejudice runs deep. The association often receives xenophobic messages through its Facebook page, blaming it for "preferring foreigners over the French."
To this Brahmbhatt replies, "A working refugee is a better integrated refugee and an asset to society."
See more from Culture / Society here