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Germany

Returning German Expats Struggle to Settle

If you've spent years living and working abroad, you'd have thought that coming home would be the easy bit. But for many people who pulled up roots only to return years later, resettling can be unexpectedly challenging.

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There's no place like home -- but it's not always welcoming

After spending three years as an aid worker in the Dominican Republic, Cornelia Ott is back home in Germany. She and her family have moved to Nordstemmen, a small town near Hanover, where her parents also live.

"My roots are here and that makes coming back easier," she said. But many of her colleagues have found slipping back into their past life much harder. After turning their backs on Germany and heading off for the great blue yonder several years ago, returning to the country they grew up in is often far from easy.

Less than promising prospects

But Cornelia and her husband are glad to be in Germany. After the relentless heat of the Caribbean, they even enjoyed the chilly winter temperatures awaiting them on their return.

Life in Nordstemmen is just as they remember. Even so, they haven't quite been able to pick up where they left off. Readjusting to life in Germany has been fraught with obstacles.

"The biggest problem is finding work," said Cornelia Ott, who is the family's main breadwinner. For the time being, the family is surviving on welfare. Their work prospects are less than rosy.

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In the Dominican Republic, Cornelia, who has a doctorate in biology, worked as advisor for an environmental protection organization on behalf of the German Development Service (DED). It was a demanding job entailing considerable responsibility, but in Cornelia's chosen field, it doesn't look good on a resume. As far as German universities are concerned, her sojourn abroad suggests she's too much of a risk-taker -- someone unlikely to stay in the same place for long.

Finding their feet

Germany's ailing economy makes getting a foot back in the door of the job market all the more difficult for those who've spent extended periods out of the country, said Christine Kindervater from the DED, who organizes seminars and counseling for returning expats.

Rosemarie Füglein has also seen how hard it can be for people to adjust after foreign missions. She works for the Center for International Migration and Development (CIM) in Frankfurt, another organization that sends development experts abroad.

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"We always tell our people that it's a good idea to establish professional contacts that will help them on their return, before they go abroad," she said. She also stressed that it's important that returning expats sell their experience abroad properly -- so that potential employers appreciate the knowledge and expertise it brought them.

The problem of reintegration

It's a problem aid workers have always had to cope with, but in the age of globalization, it's becoming increasingly common.

According to a survey published by Ernst & Young in 2004, a spell overseas can often prove positively detrimental to career development.

The study revealed that overall, working abroad is professionally advantageous. But reintegrating an employer on his or her return is a key problem. 60 percent of employers sent abroad said that their company was ill-equipped to help them resettle after their return. But after initial teething problems, most people from the development and corporate sector said they eventually managed to readjust.

Disillusioned

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Those that suffer more long-term difficulties tend to be those who failed to make a go of their careers overseas -- such as young people muddling through with part-time jobs.

Raphaelswerk is an organization that counsels people who either want to spend time abroad or have already come back.

"Many people stay overseas until they're completely penniless because they're ashamed to come back," said Jan Sladek of Raphaelswerk. They tend to seek counseling when it's already too late. By the time they've returned home, their dreams of a new life on foreign shores shattered, all Sladek can do is point them in the direction of the unemployment office.

Compared to the fates of others, Cornelia Ott has been lucky. After years out of the country, one of her main impressions of Germany is that "people are so quick to complain about everything, even though they have so much." And if either she or her husband were to be offered work abroad, they'd leap at the opportunity to up sticks all over again.

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