For refugees in Germany, McDonald’s restaurants are a job and a language lab

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People posing in front of McDonald's sign (Courtesy of McDonald’s Deutschland)
McDonald’s Germany, the country’s largest restaurant chain, has workers from 125 countries on its staff. (Courtesy photo)

Never before had the chief executive officer of fast-food chain McDonald’s Germany sat at the table when Chancellor Angela Merkel met with captains of the country’s biggest corporations.

But the CEO, Holger Beeck, was there in September at the Bundeskanzleramt (Office of the Chancellor) because McDonald’s has hired 900-plus refugees, more than any other company at the meeting. The subject of the meeting was integrating those fleeing war in Syria and other dire conditions.

“There’s no room for xenophobia at McDonald’s,” Beeck said. “We educate these foreigners not only about work, but [German] culture. They learn about us and we learn about them.”

For its role, McDonald’s Germany has received a 2016 U.S. Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence, which honors branches of U.S. companies that exemplify the best American business and ethical values.

McDonald’s already was offering language lessons online and in the restaurants for immigrants from 125 countries among its 58,000 employees.

Clown standing with man (© Getty Images/Andreas Rentz)
McDonald’s Germany CEO Holger Beeck with the company mascot, Ronald McDonald, at a charity gala in 2015. (© Getty Images/Andreas Rentz)

“We have a long history in McDonald’s of giving people a chance,” said human resources chief Gabriele Fanta.

McDonald’s, which pays wages above the federal minimum, worked closely with the Federal Employment Agency on recruitment and clearing the paperwork for work permits.

Fouad Abou Meilek, a McDonald’s restaurant manager in Dätgen, was volunteering as an Arabic translator at a job center when he met Ahmad Sakka, 27, a refugee and fellow Syrian. Why not work for us, he asked the former seaman.

Meilek could empathize. The former mathematics teacher moved to Germany in 1999 to study, took a job at McDonald’s and liked it so much he’s made a career there.

Sakka “is a really, really good worker,” said restaurant owner Diane Cichon, who has hired numerous refugees and regularly brings in a German-language instructor. “It’s a great pleasure to work with him.”

While Sakka yearns to be a seafarer again, he expresses gratitude for McDonald’s help in “making a first step back” toward rebuilding his life.

“We start with the easiest jobs without the need for too much language. Pictograms explain what they have to do,” Beeck said. “But they’re with colleagues in the kitchen who are talking in German, and soon they are too.”

Fanta said while there are ample promotion opportunities, “if they leave us in two years to go to a better job, that’s OK too.”

“I believe our contribution for society is a big one,” Beeck said. At the Bundeskanzleramt meeting on the We Together refugee-integration initiative, “all the people at the table, including Angela Merkel, agreed.”

The other 2016 ACE winners are Bureo and Interface, which recycle fishing nets into skateboards and carpets; General Electric, for an all-female business center in Saudi Arabia; Andela, which trains software developers in Lagos, Nigeria; and copper mining company Sociedad Minera Cerro Verde, majority owned by Freeport-McMoRan, for sharing a new wastewater treatment plant with the city of Arequipa, Peru.