Skip to content

Confronting The Unknown And Creating Safe Spaces – Elias Luef

Elias Luef and Moritz Schmidt-Rahmer – co-heads at EcoPol

June 20th marks World Refugee Day – an internationally recognised opportunity, organised by the United Nations, to recognise, honour and celebrate refugees from around the world whilst shining a much-needed spotlight on the conflicts and crises which have forced people to flee their homes in order to seek safety.

Going further, each year, World Refugee Day champions the right for refugees to find economic and social inclusion, as well as to visibly advocate for finding solutions to the root causes of their plights.

Business schools and universities – institutions which exist to educate the next generation, shape future society and find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges, support refugees through education access and support, outreach initiatives and research.

In recognition of World Refugee Day, BlueSky Thinking speaks to business school faculty, students and alumni around the world, using their experiences, voices and actions to help make the world a better place…

What specific initiatives or programs does your business school have in place to support and empower refugees who are interested in pursuing business education?

As an official university programme, different scholarship options are offered. These are intended to help finance the degrees needed for proper business education. Besides, a broad set of professors and students at Frankfurt School have international backgrounds and are fluent in their respective languages. This creates a welcoming environment for all students, no matter their upbringing – I could hardly call that a specific programme but it is a nurturing environment.

Our university also offers a “Buddy Programme” for all first-year students. First-years and regular students are matched based on their backgrounds. In conclusion, those freshmen have direct access to a broad network and like-minded people supporting them. Such a programme is indeed helpful in the case of an international or refugee background.

Apart from official programmes, all students are encouraged to partake in or form student initiatives. Some notable in terms of refugee empowerment is the “Asian Society,” the “Middle Eastern Society,” “Women in Business,” and “Unity” for LGBTQ students. Due to their nature as business school initiatives, all feature some business topics, no matter their focus. It is relevant to mention that most student initiatives feature regular guest lectures and internal events for all joined students.

The currently described initiatives are generally independent but offer a platform for all students to be heard and discuss topics along their names. Hence, refugees from Arab-speaking countries find like-minded students with similar experiences in the “Middle Eastern Society.” Every new student strengthens the internal community. Even interested people from outside the Arab-speaking world can join and exchange views.

I am currently the head of the “Economy & Politics” initiative (FS EcoPol), available to all students interested in current political topics. We encourage students to think outside the box by debating current political and macroeconomic issues. Our main goal is to raise students’ awareness about the synergy of politics and the economy. We provide a platform for all FS Students to broaden their horizons.

Regular events range from small networking get-togethers to big speeches and panels with known politicians and economists. We encourage all students at Frankfurt School to join our events as they are an opportunity for a vivid exchange of political views and economic issues. With a specific international department, we host events with an international focus. Not only do these offer personal contact with global leaders but also a thriving community of international students. To foster an open-minded exchange, everybody is empowered to participate in all discussions.

“People are afraid of the unknown. It is thus significant to bring these topics close to them, allowing them to grasp the overall effect and background of refugees..”

How does this specific initiative support refugees at the business school?

Considering the recent refugee crises, the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, and the Football World Cup in Qatar, we have hosted multiple events centred around refugees and migrant workers. Inviting social scientists, refugees, politicians, and generals, one of our latest panel discussions was devoted to the current situation in Afghanistan. Students have gained significant insights and engaged in a personal Q&A with all participants.

Feedback shows the positive impact on students. All were surprised by the dire situation brought close in a way even the media cannot portray. The event fostered the understanding and emotional involvement of participants who live more than 5,000km from Kabul. This has shed new light on refugee policies and changed the way our students think of crises out of their reach. Eventually, human hardship can only be fully grasped by getting direct and emotional insights made available that day.

Apart from that, we hosted a series of discussion evenings dealing with alleged human rights abuses in Qatar during the construction of stadiums. Even though not necessarily centred around refugees, the impact on minorities in the Middle East has further been discussed. Without any professionals on site, it has been the duty of our community members to organise those evenings. As such, students were given a short introductory presentation with a moderated discussion afterward.

We can now count that event series as one of our most successful, as it has provided broad interaction within the audience. Possible established solutions and an exchange of viewpoints have led us all to a better understanding of foreign policy.

After all, our initiative might not always establish direct support for refugees on their journey to becoming a part of our society. Nevertheless, we aim to increase our students’ understanding of their situation to foster helpful initiatives and an open mind. Our results have shown that – through direct interaction – trouble spots around the world can be brought vividly close to our fellow citizens.

Eventually, we facilitate a platform of open discussion for all students. With a focus on current political topics, everybody can join while feeling empowered. This is explicitly true for refugees as we share a safe space and multi-ethnical community of engaged students.

How important do you feel it is for business schools to have these types of initiatives?

A business school offers a platform for education and perspective for every student’s future career. But such development can only happen if the community is stable and open-minded. For this to be true, diversity is the key at every business school. Initiatives hence do not only offer a place for guest lectures or concentrated events but also an opportunity to partake in the shaping of that community.

While student interests at a business school might be limited, many initiatives can help broaden one’s horizon or help with thinking outside the box. Many socially significant problems are either too far away from the own environment (refugee crisis in Afghanistan, e.g.) or not discussed in lectures (human rights situation in Qatar, e.g.). Initiatives offer external and otherwise overlooked information highly relevant for the future business leaders of our time.

By looking at the events our initiative has offered so far, it becomes clear that for successful inclusion, mainly first-hand experience is relevant. While student initiatives enable a safe space for discussion and like-minded people, they also offer an experience that regular lectures cannot convey. While many business schools have tried to establish a “Code of Honour” or similar ethical standards, only through initiative as ours can these values be lived and distributed among others. All in all, I might go so far as to say that initiatives are one of the most significant features a business school must have.

What more could be done to create a more inclusive environment in business generally for refugees?

While specific events and official programmes are helpful with the inclusion of refugees, the overall topic is easily overseen outside such events. Inclusion might be further increased with a theme week or more direct exchange with actual refugees.

Although many students visit our events regularly, we see the possibility of encouraging even more students to join the process. From my own experience, the inclusion of refugees goes both ways. It is not just about offering a community and platform for refugees and international students as initiatives do. Regular students or employees need direct contact with refugees. They need to be receptive to diversity and open to change. As such, it is on business leaders to convince their employees, or in this case, students, to talk to refugees.

An inclusive environment is always based on active listening and open-minded exchange. Our initiatives have shown that such communication is possible and highly emotionally capturing, but a framework is desperately needed. People are afraid of the unknown. It is thus significant to bring these topics close to them, allowing them to grasp the overall effect and background of refugees.

On the one side, several singular events have already conveyed this aspect. On the other side, a possible solution might be social programmes such as initiatives funded by businesses. Thus, employees or students might be encouraged to support refugees in their free time and interact with those outside of a business context.

This outside-of-the-box thinking will reciprocally help a company to foster an inclusive environment. In the end, inclusivity is created when people are stripped of their fear of the unknown – whether these are businesses, universities, or business schools.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: