Empowering refugee women: The impact of mentorship

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Refugees often have prior skilled work experience and higher education, but many struggle to restart their careers in their new communities. By mentoring refugee women, we can help them develop skills, feel empowered, enhance their employability, bring career opportunities, and build confidence and resilience.

In 2023, Women in Schneider Electric (WiSE) announced they were looking for employee mentors to help refugee women enter the workforce and advance in their careers in the US. Schneider teamed up with Tent Partnership for Refugees (Tent) – a global network of more than 300 companies committed to creating economic opportunity for refugees. Tent’s mentorship initiatives pair employees from leading companies with refugee mentees seeking professional mentorship.

I immediately volunteered. I had been a mentor in the past and had seen firsthand the impact it could make on someone’s life. I’m grateful to share about my experience through the mentorship program in this blog.

My background

When I was a young woman, I studied Architecture as an exchange student in Zurich, Switzerland. During that time, I was blessed to experience the richness of diverse cultures having lived part (of that year and a half) in Germany to hone my language skills, then in a student house with others from throughout the world, and finally with a family.

I came to appreciate my homeland in a way I would never otherwise have experienced. I felt “outside” and struggled with language barriers; I learned to choose my words carefully and speak more concisely. At times I couldn’t articulate well and felt very lonely even though I was embraced and in a very sheltered, structured environment.

I returned home after graduation, working on my career and starting a family. Soon after, I chose to leave the workplace and raise my children. During this time, it was still important to me to be involved with my community, and I searched for ways to ‘pay it forward.’

Working with refugee women

I found a program looking for volunteers to work with a few refugee women in the nearby city who wanted to learn English as a second language (ESL). Some of the women had extremely abusive experiences, war-trauma backgrounds, and one woman named Habibo was never able to learn to read or write in her native language.

I worked with Habibo on basics such as how to hold a pencil and what to expect from schools her children attended. She had witnessed and survived horrible atrocities. Her coping mechanisms were difficult and made her behavior seem very inappropriate. I came to love her for her extreme persistence. She didn’t use my name (nor care to) except self-referentially. She would call me “Habibo’s teacher” and let me know what her demands of me were. I admired that she would navigate my strange culture and marveled at her laughter and delight at the world around us. It was as if I could see my home anew through her eyes.

I wasn’t sure if I helped. I was new to tutoring and mentoring and would question if I provided the kinds of opportunity and growth she hoped for. Progress can be slow, frustrating, and we don’t always see it realized amid the urgency of life’s daily struggles.

However, chance brought me and Habibo together in the Social Security office years later. She had just passed her tests and obtained American citizenship. When I approached her and asked, “Are you Habibo?” her eyes lit up with joy and recognition. She was happy and doing well, she introduced me to her growing children as her friend, “Habibo’s teacher.” I was warmed by this small interaction, and something imprinted on me making me know our connection bonded our lives and changed us in a good way.

Women supporting women

Schneider Electric has agreed to mentor at least fifty refugee women in the United States over three years. Each mentor in the Tent program works with a refugee woman for six months. During this time, we help champion their career growth and provide one on one guidance on topics such as navigating the U.S. job market and workplace norms, crafting an effective resume, practicing for job interviews, further developing a professional network, and more.

The collaboration was managed by Schneider Electric’s WiSE employee resource network (thank you, Rebecca Serros!). I understand that about 20 SE mentors participated during this first cohort. The Tent program brings assets, resources, and communities together for the benefit of women who are refugees, and we have a nicely outfitted toolbox (outlines, model schedules, meeting suggestions, highlights, etc. that make the program easy to follow and customize).

The transformative power of education and support

The woman that I matched with is from Afghanistan. She is a delightful, warm young mother with education and experience in accounting in Afghanistan. When we met, she was working in an unpaid internship. One of the first things we did together was to tune up her resume and cover letter. We discussed what she is looking for, what her immediate challenges are, and what her long-term goals are.

I was able to provide insights into interviewing, beneficial coursework choices (the Tent program offered her Coursera membership for a certain timeframe) & she obtained certifications and other skills. We practiced letter writing, had discussions about the challenges of raising a family. We met to search jobsites and upload resumes.

Through our one-on-one meetings, I could see the transformation in her. There are so many benefits to this mentorship program, including:

  • Creating a network of support and solidarity
  • Fostering a sense of belonging and inclusivity
  • Overcoming challenges: language and cultural barriers
  • Importance of interpersonal relationships in navigating barriers
  • Building trust and understanding through mentorship
  • Addressing cultural unfamiliarity through personal connections
  • Empowering future generations

Encouraging continued support and advocacy for refugee communities

Eventually as the program ran its course, I was traveling for work to the area where she lives. We planned to meet in person, enjoy lunch, and go to the office to meet my finance group colleagues. We hoped to share the opportunity to meet, network, and have her experience the work at SE, but unfortunately a brief illness prevented that from happening. Though we haven’t been able to meet in person yet, we continue to communicate occasionally by WhatsApp, text, or email to keep in touch.

Each mentorship pair can determine how to best proceed based on preference and comfort. There is no one size fits all.

Advice for readers

I applaud SE for teaming up with Tent on this powerful and immensely important program. It was a privilege and a joy.

Two women sitting at a desk having a discussion

For anyone thinking of participating in a mentorship program, I encourage you to get a little uncomfortable and reach out to share your skills and knowledge. I believe you will be surprised at how much everyone benefits. I got a chance to connect with SE coworkers in the program and met terrific people. We are all more agile and benefit from these experiences.

I’m paraphrasing a quote (JFK), Of Those to whom much is given, much is expected.

I agree with this sentiment and think that we shape the world we live in through participation. We want to embrace a sustainable world, a better world. The best way to do that for me has been to do small things with great love. I feel significant impact. There is something magical and fundamentally human in being entrusted with that vulnerability when you both come to the table: curious, wanting to explore and improve.

*Sharing with her permission.* My mentee is a tenacious woman from Afghanistan with a Bachelor of Science in Math and over six years of experience in finance and accounting AP, AR, and data validation. She is confident and communicates well, and worked in an unpaid internship after arrival in the US to develop additional skills and experience.

Please refer to her profile: Neelab Amini on LinkedIn if you know of an accounting position that may be suitable to her skill set.

About the author

Author Profile

Marq Mosier, Financial Project Manager

Marq Mosier is an artist at heart and by education with a BArch in Architecture and BS in Building Sciences from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She believes that humor and laughter are as much a part of a good life as air. Marq currently applies her creativity and technical abilities in problem solving and strategic organization as a Financial Project Manager at Schneider Electric IT Mission Critical Services in the Customer Management Office.

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