As Lithuania is drafting plans how to integrate refugees from the Middle East that the country has agreed to accept, with some expressing doubts about opportunities for them to find jobs in the relatively closed and ethnically homogeneous country, there is one business in Vilnius that exclusively employs foreigners, many of them refugees from the Middle East.
© Stopkadras

Kazimieras Norkus, the director of the barbershop "Barzdaskučiai" (which means "barbers" in Lithuanian), says that his employment practices did not follow any humanitarian consideration. Simply when he was hiring, he discovered that almost no one in Lithuania knew the trade of grooming beards.

"We thought that we could open within three months, but when we published an ad and realized that no one in Lithuania knew the trade, I myself went to London, to a barber school. However, I was making 7-8 cuts on average, so I realized that shaving beards wasn't my calling and that best barbers came from the Middle East," Norkus relates.

However, there are hardly any Middle Eastern communities in Lithuania. Most people of the Middle Eastern heritage in the country are refugees from Syria and Afghanistan who live in Rukla, the town that hosts the Refugee Reception Centre.

So Rukla was where Kazimieras and his partners went next.

Kazimieras Norkus
Kazimieras Norkus
© Stopkadras

"We arrived in Rukla [Refugee Reception Centre] and asked, who knew how to shave beards. Almost everyone said they did. So we took as many as we could fit into our car, we invited several friends and asked to trim their beards," Norkus says.

The initial results were underwhelming, as not all of the professed barbers knew how to handle combs or scissors. But Norkus was not deterred - several more visits to Rukla later, he managed to assemble a skilled team.

Norkus is rather an exception among Lithuanian employers, many of whom are reluctant to employ refugees. A study conducted several years ago found that even skilled and motivated workers had difficulty finding employment. Employers are often deterred by the language barrier as well as refugee's cultural differences. NGOs working with refugees admit that the more time they spend in Rukla, the smaller their chances to land a job.

Meanwhile Norkus says he is not deterred by applicants' refugee status - as long as they are motivated and have skills. True, he adds, it takes investment to bring employees to Vilnius and to train them.

Barbershop in Vilnius that prefers to employ refugees
© Stopkadras

"Doubtlessly, [the investment] pays off. Although it's a big investment, there's no other choice. Lithuanians cannot [cut beards] and there are few barbers, only hair stylists. But what we need are barbers, so we haven't got a choice," he says.

Norkus claims that his employees are happy with the pay he offers. Two barbers recently flew in from Colombia to take up jobs in Vilnius.

However, employees at "Barzdaskučiai" agree that it is hard to establish themselves in the country, even when they are making average salary. Still, it is better than waiting at the labour exchange and living off benefits, they say.

The biggest challenge for them right now is mastering Lithuanian. Most of them communicate with their boss and clients in foreign languages like Spanish - or simply in signs - before they learn some Lithuanian. The barber shop is offering language classes to its employees.

Barbershop in Vilnius that prefers to employ refugees
© Stopkadras

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