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A new kind of employment: Training refugees at the Magdas Hotel in Vienna

As part of our Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Integration of Migrants collection, we interviewed Gabriela Sonnleitner from Magdas Hotel.

Magdas Hotel provides employment opportunities to people who have been long-term unemployed or those who have low job prospects, particularly refugees who have been granted asylum in Austria.

It was started by the organisation Caritas, who found that when refugees get asylum status in Austria and are legally obliged to work, they don’t actually find work because there is a great mistrust and negative perception around refugees.

Caritas wanted to change this mindset of Austrian businesses and they knew lobbying for the refugees would not be enough. They decided to set up their own business to set an example and prove that refugees are talented and are willing to work and contribute to Austrian society. The tourism industry was an obvious choice due to the international nature of its business and so they researched the practicalities of starting up a hotel.

What were the challenges faced when first establishing the hotel?

There were quite a lot. The most important thing for our project was to find the right place for the hotel and a really interesting offering for our guests. We needed the right building in the right place, close to the centre and public transport. This was the first challenge, and then we needed to find the right team. We have so many refugees in Austria, and so many acknowledged refugees with asylum status, but to find the right team with people interested in tourism and who are open minded and like dealing with guests: it’s not as easy as it might seem. We’ve had people from 60 different nations speaking 20 different languages, and they all started without much knowledge of the industry, how to run a hotel and a bar, and how to serve a meal, so they really started from scratch.

What impact has the hotel had in the last couple of years?

We have now been open since 14 February and the booking rate is good. The hotel has 30 employees, 20 of whom were former refugees – each with their own unique story.

For example, a current employee from our service team came to us in his early twenties from Afghanistan. His family, especially his father, were threatened by the Taliban, and so they decided it would be best if he left the country to find safety, but his parents didn’t want to leave because they were old and didn’t want to take the risk. So on his own, he took a long, arduous journey from Afghanistan to Austria, in a dangerous boat and walking hundreds of kilometres, and when he arrived in the country, he didn’t even know he was in Austria. He got asylum after a couple of years and learned very good German on the streets talking to people. He started in the hotel in spring. He says he wants to settle in Austria and contribute something to the country. If Afghanistan became safe at any time, he would go back because he misses his family so much, but he doesn’t believe that will ever be possible.

Magdas hotel is a positive example how integration of refugees can work. We are convinced that we function as a role model and our success story has impact on business and society.

How have you seen your role changing in response to Europe’s recent migrant crisis?

Our role is not changing but what has changed is the perspective of society and the media towards us because we are becoming seen more and more as a good example in the whole of Europe of how integration in the workplace could work. People are more aware of the problem than when we started, and our hotel is well booked - it’s worth copying and people want to do the same in other countries.  For example, Hotel Utopia in Berlin has made progress with developing a similar model, and there are many others. In the last few months, I’ve had 20 to 30 talks with people who are interested in the business. Some just want to chat about their idea, others have an investor and need to make a business plan.

In the future, we’d like to create a social franchise from the concept of Magdas and then look for people or groups and organisations that would be interested.

Read more from the Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Migrant Integration collection here.