How a refugee-run factory is helping the Netherlands meet its need for face masks

How a refugee-run factory is helping the Netherlands meet its need for face masks
Like many countries, the Netherlands found itself short of medical face masks when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. File photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dutch entrepreneurs teamed up with a work-learn programme for refugees to create the Netherlands' first face mask factory.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Why be dependent on factories on the other side of the world if you can produce face masks locally?

That’s exactly what Dutch entrepreneurs Jaap Stelwagen, Fleur Bakker, Johan Blom and Naz Kawan thought in March. The Netherlands, like many other countries at the time, was dealing with a big deficit of surgical face masks.

Stelwagen, who lived in China, together with his wife who is originally from China, called several people there to ask whether it would be possible to get material. Bakker’s sister, a KLM pilot, managed to get hold of a roll of melt-blown fabric that you need to make face masks, and brought it to the Netherlands on a plane full of other health equipment. Later that month, on one of the few flights that were running at the time, two face mask machines flew 7,000 kilometres to Amsterdam.

But who would operate them?

Refugee Company, already had a sewing workshop and restaurants in place where people with a refugee background were able to acquire work experience. And yes, that is spelled correctly: the entrepreneurs of Refugee Company don’t want to focus on refugees, but on the work they do.

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“As a response to the pandemic,” project spokesperson Peter-Paul de Jong explains, “we decided to set up a face mask factory: the Mondmaskerfabriek.” Located in the city of Arnhem, it mainly employs people with a refugee background to make surgical face masks.

“The project not only responded to the deficit of masks in Dutch healthcare,” de Jong explains, “but also provides people with a refugee background with work experience and knowledge about the labour market in the Netherlands.”

Firas al Naif, 33, is one of the employees in the factory. “I’m doing different tasks,” he says. “I for example have to make sure the masks are properly wrapped and check if the machines work.” It is all new for Al Naif, as in Syria, he worked as a biology teacher. “I wasn’t used to doing technical tasks. The first month was pretty hard, but now it’s going really well.”

The factory employs 24 people with a refugee background – with a contract. All but one of them also take part in an extra training scheme. “We have a paid four-hour programme next to work, in which we can improve our language and become more familiar with the labour market, and we make for example a CV, application letters, we see how you can find work,” says Al Naif.

READ ALSO: How translators in the Netherlands are making Covid-19 information more accessible

The Mondmaskerfabriek puts 70 percent of its profit back into the company. “This way, we can employ more people, protect healthcare professionals and keep the production local,” they write on their website. The project was made possible by loans and donations from among others, Philips Foundation, Qredits and the Rabobank.

“What differentiates this project to others,” de Jong adds, “is that we have a unique combination of helping people with a refugee background and responding to a need of society.”

In 2019, 30 percent of the refugees in the Netherlands were working, an improvement from the year before when it was only 17 percent, according to by Divosa, an association of municipal directors working in social inclusion and employment issues.

Covid-19 might turn these positive developments around. “We warn for decreasing trends in 2020,” says Chrisje Meinders, spokesperson for Divosa. “Refugees are usually the first group to notice dips in the labour market.”

“The one thing I like most about this work is solving problems,” says Al Naif. “If there is a problem with the machine from China, I like to look for ways to get it working again.”

And there were other problems, de Jong explains. After the challenges of getting the right machines and material, the next problem arose: getting certification to create surgical face masks for healthcare professionals. In order to be used in the healthcare sector, the face masks have to be certified by a laboratory to say they meet strict standards. And that took some time.

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Al Naif thinks the factory where he’s working is a nice place. But it isn’t perfect. As the building is old, ventilation is a problem and it’s hard to get it up to the antibacterial standards, Bakker writes on the website. The location caused occasional deviations that stood in the way of the factory’s certification.

The project tried different ways to ensure the masks were up to medical standards, including sterilizing them with gamma radiation and setting up a special sterile production room within the factory with purified air and an antibacterial floor.

In mid October the certification was acquired and the factory started supplying the Dutch centralized point for healthcare products (Landelijk Consortium Hulpmiddelen or National Consortium of Resources), with which a deal was made earlier this year.

“That distinguishes the Mondmaskerfabriek from other projects from Refugee Company,” de Jong explains, “as we can use the profits to pay employees, instead of mainly relying on funds and donations.”


L to R: Firas, Efrem and Milad celebrating the mask factory's certification. Photo courtesy of Mondmaskerfabriek

“This project seems to do its job very well,” says Tesseltje de Lange, professor of Sociology of Law and Migration Law at Radboud University. “Refugee Company creates work and prepares refugees for the Dutch labour market.”

And that can be hard. The main problem usually is communication. “Employers often overlook how much time it takes to work with refugees,” says de Lange, who researches the labour market integration of migrants and refugees. “Intercultural differences are often bigger than they think. Initiatives like this deliberately take the time to address these issues.”

Research she conducted in 2017 stresses the importance for refugees of finding work early, as finding work is always easier when you’re already doing something.

“Working in the Mondmaskerfabriek is different than working in a supermarket,” Al Naif explains. “Having colleagues from so many different backgrounds is nice, and the atmosphere and coaching is good.”

“I love how much I learned about technology,” he says. But he would rather be a biology teacher again. “When my Dutch is good enough, I want to go back to the classroom.”

Michal van der Toorn is a freelance journalist from the Netherlands. She graduated from the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Master’s, and has a special interest in radio, podcasts and conflict resolution.


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