World of Work

| Ben DeVries
World of Work
© Daniele Aloisi

“The map is not the territory.” - Alfred Korzybski

The map

Looking at a map of Milan cannot prepare you for suddenly becoming a resident. Studying Italian is not the same as speaking the language in a job interview. A piece of paper that declares you are a refugee is not the same as being a refugee. 

A person arrives in Milan. They may have come from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali; they may be 18 years old, they may be 25. They may have left behind conflict in their home country, also family members. These are things they have in common. They are in a new place with new challenges. 

Is it possible to integrate without employment? Is it possible to find employment without integrating?
Such are the paradoxes refugees face; the bureaucratic processes that help untangle them are rarely swift. A refugee may have never faced a bureaucracy before: the buildings with long halls and many doors, forms, interviews, documentation – all in the new language, everything new. 

In an ideal Milan – the map version of Milan, crisp and flat – new arrivals would swiftly receive the necessities of their new life: a home, a job, an ID card that entitles them to the benefits of Italy’s social safety net. A clear path. But the map is not the territory. The path is never clear. There are mountains to move before any of this can happen. It’s easy to miss a mountain on a map.

The territory  

Antonella Lamorte knows the territory. As Project Coordinator for Croce Rossa Italiana - Comitato di Milano, she has committed the last four years of her career to the Employability and Social Integration of Refugees (ESIR) project.  

Her work, alongside the ESIR project’s supporting funders, has necessitated an insider knowledge of the refugee experience in Milan. If you get a chance to speak with her about the project, you may find she backs up her points with examples from the participants she knows and speaks with regularly. It’s not just Razzaghi, employee of the year at the Four Seasons hotel, or Fallykou, now thriving in Milan’s fashion scene, or Mauboubeh, who’s flipped her Persian pastry skills into making pasta; Antonella knows many more names.

The ESIR project began as an extension of the ESIRAS pilot project of the Milan Red Cross, co-funded by the European Union, already underway in welcoming centres for refugees. Welcoming centres in Milan take people through the first steps of social integration – health cards, residency permits, other necessary documentation – but employment was still a missing piece in 2018, when the ESIRAS pilot began. Once people left the centres, they lost the network they needed to prepare for jobs and find them. ESIRAS stepped in to fill this gap. 

ESIR, with The Human Safety Net, helps refugees in Milan find employment, by providing “greater knowledge and skills with respect to the local socio-economic context,” and promoting “better access to the world of work and to social services.” 

There’s a material difference between giving someone a list of jobs and suggesting they apply versus giving them access to the world of work. It takes robust knowledge of how the job market, the social services system and the cultural particularities of Milan intersect to truly prepare someone for employment. Milan Red Cross was in a unique position to understand this intersection. 

With an on-the-ground perspective, ESIR was better able to provide refugees with tailored programmes and advice for Milan’s specific job market and culture. As far as cultural differences, Antonella gave the example of eye contact. “In some cultures, looking directly into someone’s eyes is not polite, so applicants wouldn’t do it in a job interview.” Without mastering small but crucial details like this, one could miss out on a job they might otherwise attain.

ESIR programme

The methods the ESIR programme used to prepare participants for the world of work in Milan included: 

Language assessment as a first step. Applicants had to have a level of A2 in Italian, and if they did not, the ESIR program funneled them into other programmes to build their language skills.

Empowerment courses. Participants enhanced their communication, relational and organisational skills in empowerment path/workshops  run by Milan Red Cross. These included activities like social theatre, where participants joined mock job interviews to get a feel for what they would experience in real ones.  

Skills and vocational training, run by accredited organisations in Milan, curated by Milan Red Cross, minimum 100 hours for participants. By focusing on a limited set of industries aligned with the skillsets of participants, the ESIR was able to provide customised training. This included language training germane to specific industries; the logistics sector, for example, has its own set of terminology, not taught in typical Italian courses.  

Finally, participants received active support in the job search and follow-ups once they landed a job. During these follow-ups, Milan Red Cross advised participants on topics like housing and other integration matters.


A pilot programme of ESIR, funded by the EU and running from 2018-19, went beyond expectations: Milan Red Cross trained 127 people and 54 entered the world of work; in both cases, these numbers were twice the numbers projected. The project continued, thanks to a three-year grant from The Human Safety Net.

The four-year program counted among its successes: 

  • 322 participants in empowerment courses  
  • 261 participants in professional training courses, of which 91% obtained the certificate
  • 181 contracts activated, of which 90 were extra-curricular internships and 91 employment contracts (permanent, fixed-term and apprenticeship)

Part of The Human Safety Net’s involvement in the ESIR project was to apply deep knowledge and methodological rigour to metrics like these, looking deeper into the numbers to help partners see what they really mean and where the programme could go next. Not just a funder, The Human Safety Net brought deep knowledge of impact assessment to the ESIR project. 

EVPA's case study provides detailed account of how The Human Safety Net measured and managed impact for the ESIR project, but for this story, we’ll focus on how the partnership between The Human Safety Net and Milan Red Cross ultimately served people like Razzaghi and Fallykou. 

The ESIR project would have been unlikely to succeed in the way it did – or measure success – without the funding and essential impact measurement and management (IMM) knowledge The Human Safety Net provided. To quote Kate Sullivan, MEL & Capacity Development Manager at The Human Safety Net, on the subject of how The Human Safety Net aided reporting and measurement: 

“Together with Croce Rossa Italiana – Comitato di Milano, we felt that, in order to capture fully the transformation happening for people supported we wanted to go beyond the number of jobs obtained to understand with each participant what transforming their life means for them based on their ambition, needs and preferences. The conversation brought me back to the EVPA IMM course, so I took some time to read back over the training materials and went to them with the idea of segmenting stakeholders to better incorporate their voice in the solution. They were very enthusiastic about the proposal and took immediate action with a few focus groups to test the waters.”
Kate Sullivan, MEL & Capacity Development Manager, The Human Safety Net

Flexibility. Listening. Learning. These were good signs for a working partnership that understood the needs of beneficiaries and aimed to keep building on that understanding. Stakeholders from Milan Red Cross and The Human Safety Net engaged in a free exchange of ground-level knowledge and impact best practices; more than that, Antonella described the partnership as going beyond “impact valuation and really paying close attention to what we do, providing regular committee meetings and even courses.” 

Such activities fit with the highly engaged grant-making approach of The Human Safety Net. It’s often easy for a funder to take the map view; The Human Safety Net, including project stakeholders like Kate, clearly got to know the territory. 

Milan Red Cross had the trust and deep knowledge of refugees, but they needed a partner that would bring additional expertise in employability and technical assistance in private sector hiring, both of which The Human Safety Net brought. The ESIR program aligned with the objectives The Human Safety Net’s “For Refugees” programme which “helps refugees flourish as entrepreneurs or get professional training to contribute to their inclusion in the local economy.” While ESIR is not a start-up, it does clearly contribute to integration through employment, and similar to the goals of social entrepreneurs, learning was a focus. 

ESIR programme

The Human Safety Net was instrumental in learning from the pilot project, ESIR. The capital they provided for the second phase of ESIR was the catalyst, and the measurement and management knowledge they exchanged was key to knowing and improving the impact of the project, the better to identify the good ideas that were ripe for scale and replication. This is where non-financial support became vital as well: working with The Human Safety Net led Milan Red Cross to better assess the employability prospects of each sector, identifying trade-offs between outcomes and risks. For example, project partners identified the IT sector as ripe for expansion. IT positions don’t usually require the same language skills of other sectors, a bonus for people still developing their Italian proficiency. Beyond this, project partners identified that participants who found work in IT were more likely to land a permanent contract. The Human Safety Net also stepped up to provide Milan Red Cross with a network where IT jobs were readily available. 


Bigger map 

Together, The Human Safety Net and Milan Red Cross moved mountains. They moved the mountains standing in the way of refugee employment; they prepared many for employment and integration, and aim to prepare many more. 

They also moved the mountains standing in the way of scale. They’re now prepared to take the ideas at the core of the project to a wider group. Their collaboration yielded reliable ways to prove the impact of the project, and this, in turn, enabled them to present their story in a way that shows its scalability and worth. 

They’re ready to scale together. And they’re going to need a bigger map. 

Plans for expansion of the program may include further focus on the IT sector: project partners established a target of 25% IT jobs for the next round of participants and are considering piloting a training focused on IT. 

Plans for expansion may include other regions in Italy. Project partners are considering the integration of ESIR with the welcoming centres. And The Human Safety Net is also considering a 3-year scale-up grant with a bigger ticket size. 
For now, these plans are maps. Just maps. But this partnership is ready for the territory.

Learn more about impact measurement and management

Navigating IMM with The Human Safety Net

Funding Timeline: