LONDON — Three years ago, when World Jewish Relief’s (WJR) UK program director, Janice Lopatkin, established the Specialist Training and Employment Program (STEP) for Syrian refugees arriving in the United Kingdom, she had no idea that she would receive an honor from the Queen for her work.
The honor — an MBE known as Member of the Order of the British Empire, awarded for outstanding achievement or service to a community — was given in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list in June. The project provides support for Syrian refugees arriving in the country as part of the government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
“It’s very exciting, but I do feel that it is definitely a shared honor,” says Lopatkin modestly. “It includes everyone, from [WJR chief executive] Paul Anticoni to all the partner [organizations] I work with, and the STEP managers because they’re the people on the front line.”
Partly funded by the European Union’s Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), STEP helps refugees identify and overcome the challenges to finding work and offers individualized specialist employment support with the long-term aim of helping participants find permanent, sustainable jobs. In particular, it provides English language classes as well as specific vocational training courses and work experience. The project operates in five locations across the UK, including Leeds and Bradford in Yorkshire and Coventry in the Midlands.
Sitting in a nondescript meeting room tucked at the top of WJR’s North London office, Lopatkin comes across as level headed yet passionate about her role — clearly committed to giving the refugees the support they need in order to get work and rebuild their lives. Although she downplays her part in the recent award, she is clearly proud.
“I feel it’s an honor for the program, that it has been recognized as something important and significant,” Lopatkin says.
Since STEP began in 2016, the program has assisted approximately 500 refugees, over 100 of whom now have work in a range of sectors, including at companies such as Tesco, Waitrose, and Marks & Spencer. Lopatkin liaises with national and local government and develops partnerships with employers to involve them in the training and recruitment process.
But the actual format for the project came as a result of a three-month piece of freelance research that Lopatkin was asked to undertake for WJR. In 2015, when then-prime minister David Cameron announced that 20,000 Syrian refugees would be allowed into the UK, there was a call from some of WJR’s supporters and its trustees to consider how they might assist them, says Lopatkin.
At that time, the charity had just run one of their most successful campaigns raising money for the Syrian refugees in Greece and Turkey who were fleeing the conflict, so WJR wanted to find out what support was being offered to Syrian refugees in the UK and, crucially, what they could do.
I was told that if there wasn’t anything, we weren’t going to just try and do something
“I was told that if there wasn’t anything, we weren’t going to just try and do something,” Lopatkin says. “If there was a gap, we’d look to see if we had the expertise. It really was about need.”
From her conversations with NGOs and local municipalities in areas that had resettled Syrian refugees, Lopatkin discovered that the issue of employment was consistently raised as a gap in provision.
“They all said there was support for housing, they could get their kids into schools, but often there wasn’t much after the immediate need had been met,” she says.
Statistics showed that, after 18 months, only between two and three percent of resettled refugees found employment, says Lopatkin, “so, there clearly was a need.”
As an organization, World Jewish Relief has experience in running employment projects, predominantly in the former Soviet Union through its Livelihood Development Program, which provides job seeking advice, employment skills and psychological welfare to vulnerable members of the Jewish community. On the basis of its knowledge, experience and success, says Lopatkin, a similar model in the UK seemed like a really good fit for the organization.
By 2017, Lopatkin had set up the five projects that STEP currently runs.
The motivation for the program, says Lopatkin, is very Jewish-influenced and informed by WJR’s history. Formerly known as the Central British Fund, it was founded in 1933 to help rescue Jews from persecution in Germany and assist them when they reached the UK.
“[As Jews], the refugee experience is one we know well,” says Lopatkin. “It’s part of our story. The Syrian community is a new community which is developing and building its own infrastructures, just as we have. It’s also a diverse community, as are we.”
Lopatkin believes that such diversity is embraced by the communities they work with. Some STEP clients joined a group of rabbis on a recent visit to the city of Coventry, which she describes as a very open and unifying experience.
“When we went to the Jewish cemetery, people started to talk about the similarities between Jewish and Muslim burial,” Lopatkin says. “It was amazing.”
There is also a sense of commonality. “Jews came to the UK in the 1800s — [the Syrian refugees] are talking two weeks or three months ago,” Lopatkin says, smiling. “But we seem to still carry that experience with us. When you hear [clients] talking about their children — that they want them to be safe, their aspirations for them, that they love the educational system but that they can’t always understand what their kids say because they speak with broad Yorkshire accents — it’s things that are familiar to us. [We’ve heard similar] stories from our parents or grandparents.”
STEP always works with trusted local partners, often in areas where there isn’t a Jewish community, or, if there is, it is small. But this has not been an issue for the organization.
I can’t think of anyone who has said, ‘We don’t want to accept your help’
“We have been hugely welcomed. I can’t think of anyone who has said, ‘We don’t want to accept your help.’ So much is being challenged by being in the UK and people are genuinely grateful and hugely appreciative for any support they can get.”
Although the scope of participants’ professions, interests and abilities is broad, Lopatkin emphasizes that STEP will take people at any stage of their integration process.
“They can have no English, but if they have a desire to work, we will work with them and provide activities that are suitable for their stage,” she says.
In addition to providing essential training and guidance in order to understand the UK workplace better, STEP runs workshops that aid integration into British society. Earlier this year, the project trialed a new program in the city of Wakefield called Working in the UK, along with partners Horton Housing Association and Wakefield Museums.
The workshops, held at Wakefield Museum, ran for five weeks, using objects from the museum’s collection to explore Wakefield’s industrial history and heritage to help participants learn about their new home. In mid-July, a small exhibition showcasing their discoveries was launched at the museum by MP Yvette Cooper.
“Participants made connections between Wakefield and Syria and their own working lives,” says Lopatkin, “such as one client whose father worked for a Wakefield wool company in Syria.”
The group also found out that in the early 20th century Wakefield imported licorice from Syria.
“[A project like this] builds confidence, motivates people to get involved in their local community and helps to improve their English, which will boost their chance of finding employment,” Lopatkin adds. “I am very keen to do more.”
Asked whether the STEP model can be applied in other countries, Lopatkin says it depends on the local job market as well as their general attitude towards refugees.
“I recently presented STEP at a UNHCR Home Office event which had representatives from countries doing resettlement programs,” she says. “I think the core message resonated with people, but one country — I can’t remember which one — said they had negative views of refugees and couldn’t see how it could work there.”
Lopatkin says that WJR is doing some work via STEP in Greece but, “It’s much tougher. The environment and attitudes are so different.”
“And Greek is a difficult language to learn,” she says, laughing.
Though the project has only been running for a few years, the main challenge is actually in the mindset, says Lopatkin — both for the deliverers of the program, as well as the recipients.
These clients are the most vulnerable of refugees and have huge obstacles to overcome, Lopatkin says, but she maintains an “absolute belief” that the program can help people find work.
“Our main thing is we have the success of WJR behind us in other projects so that we can say this is tough, we’ve got to overcome language and cultural barriers, we’ve got to understand UK employment. But we can,” Lopatkin says with emphasis, “with the right support, with the right activities, get you where you need to be.”