Bridging borders and building futures in Madrid

Jonathan is from El Salvador. His story may not be a happy one, but it has a happy ending. 

Three years ago, he left behind his troubles with Maras, typical gangs in Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. He was willing to cross the ocean and set foot in Spain. He also left two younger siblings back home, but was willing to migrate to give them a better future. Yet, in Madrid, life seemed to offer opportunities that he could not reach at first.  

That was until once, playing football with some friends, he heard about “La Quinta Cocina.” 

L is for learner 

La Quinta Cocina is a community space where people can enjoy theatre, reading, playing, good coffee and the excellent taste of socially made food. It’s a safe space where hope, creativity and opportunities occur for all in a holistic approach. 

Food and drinks are prepared by 40 students between 16 and 23 who learn in the kitchen how to cook and in the coffee shop how to waiter. Students with an “L” on their T-shirts diligently serve your order in the beautifully decorated coffee shop. 

Coffee shop in La Quinta Cocina. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

Fernando Morán, the director of La Quinta Cocina, trains the students, most of whom are young people with a migration background in vulnerable situations. “I have not experienced a migration process,” admits Fernando, “but I have had a difficult adolescence, and I had support to keep on going.” Now, he accompanies others in a professional and social process that does not forget about psychological support.  

In La Quinta, as they call it, Jonathan met Vinicius from Brazil. “I didn’t expect much from this course, but I got hooked by the profession,” Vinicius says. Once his course was over, Fernando asked Vinicius to stay over to help others. “They called me to be a trainer and I love it. I hope to continue and help more people,” Vinicius adds. 

Fernando defines himself as a “heroes hunter.” They are heroes, he explains, due to the circumstances they’ve gone through. Some of them do not end when entering Spain. For example, some students are experiencing homelessness and still come to the venue every day. “That’s why they are heroes. I think there is no better job in the world than mine,” he concludes with a moving gesture. “And I am lucky to be paid!” he jokes. 

Every year, Fernando has to select 40 students from a list that surpasses the limited vacancies. However, the selection process prioritises those who experience the most significant vulnerability and tries to find a better fit for the rest. After four months of training, the students become trainees in restaurants around the city.  

“This project proves that giving an opportunity to unaccompanied minors changes their development. This can improve the perception of those who initially disapprove of them,” Fernando claims.  

Almost 600 students have graduated from Fernando’s courses since they started in 2018. Applicants hear about the initiative thanks to the promotion of Madrid City Council, the dissemination of educational institutions that youngsters may leave, and word of mouth among them.

“For those who have experienced ugly things, this beautiful place is a balm,” concludes Fernando. “My happiest moment is when Fernando invited me to return,” Vinicius says. “Not because of the job, but because of the people.” 

Vinicius, Jonathan and Fernando presenting the centre and their stories. Photo by Marta Buces

Now La Quinta Cocina, the restaurant where Jonathan found his place in Madrid, has made a journey of its own: Its latest branch has opened in El Salvador. It’s a timely reminder that the movement of people leads to the movement of finance and ideas, and that once the door is unlocked, it can swing both ways. Trainers in the Madrid branch work with 70 NGOs in the Latin American country and have created a network of trainers between the two sister projects. 

The second chance model 

Aspa is another of Madrid’s projects. It’s managed by Opcion 3, an organisation active in the city since 1997. 60% of the 5 000 people that have studied there were born outside Spain.  

Alfredo Lopez Munoz, Project Director at Opcion 3, says the students usually are undocumented migrants, mainly from Africa and Latinoamerica. “They come here to start a life project. Youngsters leave their country of origin and come here for their parents,” he explains. 

Opcion 3 also welcomes young people under guardianship and semi-guardianship by the public administration. The foundation accompanies the young in their transition to adult life. Together, they work on violence prevention to avoid bullying, gender violence or neighbourhood gangs.  

“These young people should be protected by law and offered an educational and life plan,” says Alfredo. Personally, they face the cultural shock of different languages and traditions. Professionally, they lack training and experience. As in La Quinta, some students in Opcion 3 are homeless. 

The “school class model” does not frequently work with people at risk of exclusion, explains Alfredo, that may end up abandoning the education system. That’s why they work with the “second chance” model, favouring and promoting educational return and social and labour insertion. 

“The second chance model allows for shorter courses between 60 and 80 hours that are more practical when teaching skills and with employability,” explains Alfredo. This is what keeps students attending the lessons. 

Alfredo Lopez presenting Opcion 3’s work in the mutual learning organised by Eurocities and Madrid. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

“We have broken the walls of the classrooms and made them cooperative,” explains Marta Martinez, Director of Socieducational programmes at Foundation Tomillo, another organisation working with youngsters that abandoned the educational system at some point.  

Back in school, Tomillo’s students have not attended more than 30% of the lessons. “There is a lack of attendance and motivation, but if I continue teaching classes that have failed for them, nothing will change,” Marta declares.  

In Fundacion Tomillo, two educators in each classroom work on students’ vocation from the moment they enter and with project-based training them on the latest digital skills.  

The most wanted digital talent 

Foundation Tomillo works on preventing school failure to employability. It offers up-to-date intensive training, for example, on full-stack web development and cybersecurity. It is a hybrid format with real challenges that technology companies bring to the table. 

Foundations Tomillo and Opcion 3 work very closely with private companies, which provides an overview of labour demands that can be filled with their students. Marta says trying to engage the private sector in such a social initiative may seem challenging, but “when they start, they participate more often. They find benefits beyond profits and having only highly qualified employees,” Alfredo from Opcion 3 adds. 

In Fundacion Tomillo, the selected students come from areas at risk of social exclusion. To work on emotional skills and avoid dropouts, the foundation works with counsellors, therapeutic companions who, throughout the whole training process, individually check each student’s personal situation and foster a relaxed group atmosphere. 

“We don’t just do training (many do that),” explains Marta. “The personal and socio-emotional work and accompaniment are important because profiles come from complex situations. Developing the labour capacity but not the emotional one makes it difficult to keep a job. Emotional capacity stops being taught in elementary school.” 

Marta Martinez presenting Fundacion Tomillo’s work in Madrid. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

Training in the foundation does not follow the standard methodology but a problem-based learning methodology that presents technical content to implement in a real project with a positive impact on society. The foundation has created training sessions for precise positions designed along with private companies “as they know better what the sector needs,” explains Marta.  

The Employment Agency of Madrid was the first public administration that joined the network of companies and institutions that train young talent (nowadays more than 20). The agency’s role is financing and identifying potential users.  

A network of centres for young migrants 

Sebastian arrived in Madrid from Colombia in 2021. He heard at the city council that people from many different nationalities were getting help at Madrid’s municipal office for information and orientation to deal with administrative paperwork and other processes.  

Nowadays, he is a volunteer at the centre, known as La Rueca. “Every Friday, we, a group of young people, meet for orientation or labour workshops. Other times, we organise visits to cultural events such as the book fair or pass by other youth centres to participate in activities,” such as basketball, football or volleyball. 

Sign of the centre La Rueca. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

The office also offers community manager, waiter, occupational risk prevention, and food handler courses. Sebastian helps follow up on the students’ attendance and acts as a buddy for those new to the centre.  

La Rueca also facilitates sessions with lawyers to deal with regularisation processes and recognition of qualifications. But the services the office offer go beyond professional training. Migrants learn how the Spanish labour market works and about the social rights they’re entitled to.  

“When they arrive, they are unaware they can go to libraries, benefit from insurance, discounts in transports, etc.,” explains Carmen Herrero Linares, Coordinator of the North Municipal Office for information, orientation and social accompaniment for the Integration of the migrant population. 

As Carmen is a historian, “we also walk around the city to get to know its history,” explains Sebastian. Carmen adds that “many of them only know the area where they live.” 

Social, emotional and administrative support 

Madrid city council is responsible for migrants in emergency situations and refugees that lack legal status. The municipality supports all these projects through tenders.  

Attendants of the mutual learning visiting La Rueca. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency.

The national government takes over the competence for integration when a migrant’s regularisation process is concluded. However, more should be done nationally and internationally to guarantee their labour market integration. 

“Nothing matters if there is no social, emotional and administrative support after the training,” says Fernando, who admits the most challenging times have been struggling with the students’ paperwork. 

Papers take their time. And in the meantime, volunteers, civil servants and social workers offer youngsters psychological support, companionship and professional preparation. “It’s important people understand [La Rueca] is a safe space,” Carmen adds. “We ask ‘how are you?’ every morning,” adds Marta. 

All these initiatives and many more were presented at the Mutual Learning ‘MY SKILLS, OUR CITY: skills development and recognition of qualifications for migrants’ that Madrid hosted from 27 to 29 June.

Representatives of Madrid City Council, employment agencies and social employability organisations discussed cities’ integration initiatives and exchanged skills development and recognition of qualifications for migrants with other cities in Europe.  

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer