“A chain is just as strong as its single links” Interview with Osman Kimil

In the 1970s, Osman Kimil moved from native Turkey to Hamburg, Germany with his four brothers, to follow their father Ali who was there working as a gastarbeiter. After a difficult start, Osman made Germany his home, and he was particularly successful at that: not only today is he a successful entrepreneur at the head of Unipack, a company producing packaging films. He is also the current President of BUV, UNITEE’s German Member Federation, and a father of four.

Recently, Mr Kimil has taken the initiative to start a program of hiring refugees in his company: thanks to his New European background, he has been able to quickly grasp what refugees have gone through in their lives. The New European interviewed him in order to know more about him and get some pieces of advice on the job market integration of refugees.

Tell us your story.

I was born in Giresun, a city the Northeast of Turkey, in 1963. When I was three years old, in 1966, my father Ali moved to Germany as a gastarbeiter. I stayed in Turkey to go to elementary school, and I lived for two years alone with my grandma, in a big house. My parents then realised that it was not sustainable on the long term. For this reason, my mother came back from Germany and we all moved together to Istanbul, where we lived for 5 years.

In Istanbul I had my first experiences as a foreigner living in a big city. I attended there all my schooling, up to the first year of high school. Nevertheless, since the political events of 1978 penetrated even inside the school classes and I was the target of different groupings, my mother decided that it was time for us to move back to Germany. So, in the Summer of 1978, my father brought us with him to Germany.

Once there, I was not able to continue my schooling. Instead, I trained as a harbour technician, which led me to work for twelve years in the Port of Hamburg, before I decided to become independent trading packaging films. So, since 1989 I have been active in the area of packaging films.

What was the main reason for you to become an entrepreneur?

I was curious and ready to be on my own legs, even if I did not have any previous business experience. My father has always told me that this country and these people had given us work and bread in our most difficult times. Therefore, we had to do everything we could to be useful to this country and to settle, at least in part, our debts towards them.

The motivation to start came from my uncle. He had a big printing company of packaging films. He convinced me to supply his company from Europe and the whole Turkish market, which we did. however, when Turkey joined the Customs Union with the EU in 1996, my uncle decided to move to the United States, where his son had already completed his studies. He left me alone in Europe, with the 90% of my turnover gone. It was not easy to rebuild everything, but with a lot of work and a supporting family, everything can be done in life.

Do you believe that your experiences in two countries has helped you in successfully tackling the challenges of business?

I am totally convinced of that. As I have already mentioned, I founded my first company together with my uncle with the objective of supplying the Turkish market with packaging films, because in Turkey they were not produced yet at that time. Without cultural and linguistic experiences in both countries, it would have been very difficult.

That is why in our German Federation, BUV, we advocate for the strenghtening of entrepreneurial diversity, because we are convinced that it has an enormous potential for our economy and society.

How did you decide to launch a mentoring program for refugees?

Since in my childhood I had to move twice, I know very well the amount of hardships these people have been through. We, as individual people, constitute the society. If we are successful, also society is successful. But everyone of us should also be ready to take responsibility for our society: a chain is just as strong as its single links.

For this reason, I decided to contribute myself, by hiring refugees to work in my company. The need of specialised skills in our field is so high, that we are unable to get skilled workers from the market. For this reason, we always train our personnel ourselves. Even if not all people are immediately ready to take full responsibility on their work, we have nevertheless experienced that refugees can easily be trained when a strong basis of trust is created.

What have you learnt from the experience?

As I said, trust is a fundamental aspect. Therefore it is desirable to establish in the first place some mentors. They should be experts in the job to which the refugee should be introduced. Mentors are key to all questions regarding the job. Personal matters should not be discussed, unless they are brought up in the first place by the refugees themselves.

In this regard, New European employees are particularly useful: language barriers with New Europeans are easier to overcome, if the mentors themselves have an understanding of their situation, since they have already experienced something similar before.

Another important issue is the recognition of skills. It is imperative to issue a certificate of the skills that could be recognised in other companies, which could be an ideal sector of cooperation with the Chambers of commerce.

Do you think that we, as a society, fail in some specific aspects regarding integration? How could we better integrate refugees in the labour market?

We are failing in many respects: humanely, culturally and technically. I happen to have some concrete ideas on all of these aspects.

First of all, we should listen to the people and transmit the feeling that they are needed, as long as they remain here.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge that cultural differences are not a problem, because we already have, in some big cities, people with up to 140 different nationalities.

There is then an issue of bureaucracy. Red tape should be reduced. Another important aspect is for people who come to Europe and would like to work here, to receive detailed reviews and documents on what they can and want to do.

Finally, there is a time issue: there should not be a gap of months, or even years, before the people who arrive here have a life perspective. This can be addressed through streamlining job programs organised by job centres, chambers of commerce and trade associations. An example of this could be the introduction of internships and trainings such as the one we have at Unipack. Also, chambers of commerce should issue certificates of employability, in order to better define future career or educational paths.

In your opinion, do EU governments do enough in order to tackle this problem?

Unfortunately not. Usually, governments do not know themselves how they should deal with that. As a consequence, it is extraordinarily important that they receive the help of people who have already found themselves in similar situations. New Europeans are more important than ever to create this connection in our society.


Interview conducted by Maria Terron Puig