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From Algeria to geriatric care in Germany

February 2, 2020

Germany needs carers. Refugees like Sarra Belmostefaoui need career prospects. Now Sarra is training to be a carer for the elderly and is meeting lots of different people in the process.

Sarra Belmostefaoui with Helmut Unteroberdoerster
Image: DW/A. Grunau

Helmut Unteroberdoerster is 91 years old, and has lived all his life "in the neighborhood" of greater Cologne. Sarra Belmostefaoui is 25. She grew up in a village in Algeria, and has only been in Germany for three years. The two of them get along well. They're sitting in the Seelscheid retirement home, where Unteroberdoerster is now a resident. His light, bright room has a hospital bed, an armchair, a table and chairs, a little fridge and some family photos on the walls. He used to be a farmer; she's training to be a geriatric nurse. After this, she plans to complete an apprenticeship to be a nurse specialist.

Read more: Balkan nurses headed to German hospitals: A lush business for intermediaries

Geriatric nurse Florian Theus is full of praise for Sarra. "When you explain something to her, she puts it into practice straight away,” he says. He recalls her first day at work: "She shadowed us the whole time. Then suddenly she started limping.” When she took off her shoe, they saw that she had a huge blood blister. "That was when she first tried out the bandaging technique.”

Florian Theus walking down a long corridor, back to the viewer
Carer Florian Theus hurries to help a resident at the Seelscheid retirement homeImage: DW/A. Grunau

Theus says that, on an early shift, "we walk at least 12 kilometers.” Two people are on duty, looking after around 20 residents. Even as we're talking, the bell on the long corridor rings constantly. Most of the residents are not as "low maintenance” as Helmut Unteroberdoerster: Around 70% suffer from dementia.

Finding skilled workers — assisting integration

Germany urgently needs nurse specialists, especially in the geriatric care sector. Health Minister Jens Spahn is advertising abroad, encouraging people to come to Germany. All prognoses assume that, as people keep living longer, demand will only increase. Meanwhile, refugees like Belmostefaoui are already in Germany and seeking career prospects.

This is where the "Springboard: Care” project comes in. The young Algerian woman is one of more than 200 refugees from almost 40 countries who were given comprehensive advice about work in nursing care for the elderly at the Bonn Association for Health Professionals. So far, around 100 of them have attended language classes, supplemented by lessons about life in Germany and the basics of nursing care.

Refugees standing around bed practicing how to position patients
Facing a shortage of carers, Germany sees untapped potential in refugees.Image: DW/A. Grunau

One after another, women and men from Afghanistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Chad practice transferring someone from bed to a wheelchair and back again. "Always talk to the person," Wolff tells them.

It quickly becomes clear that moving patients safely and gently while also protecting your own back takes a lot of practice. Wolff corrects the students again and again. There's a lot of laughter. Then she shows them how to position residents in bed so that they don't get bedsores.

The consultation and training also dea with the students' own biographies, Wolff says. Many of the refugees have experienced trauma.

Belmostefaoui explains that she fled Algeria because she was abused and threatened with forced marriage. "I tried to die twice," she says. She met her future husband, a Syrian, on Facebook, and wrote to him secretly for two years. When her brother found out about it, his reaction was brutal: "Beat, beat, beat." Sarra set aside money from the shopping, and in late 2013 she got into a taxi. The driver helped her, and she was able to make her way to Syria, where she married and had a daughter.

Dolpha Mberi and Sarra Belmostefaoui with a dummy patient
Dolpha Mberi and Sarra Belmostefaoui both are taking part in the "Springboard Care" programImage: DW/A. Grunau

But there was civil war in Syria. In 2016, when they fled to Greece via Turkey and then on to Germany, her little girl was one month old.

Dolpha Mberi was at the same language course as Belmostefaoui. He's also doing the geriatric nursing training. The 30-year-old from Congo-Brazzaville is an orphan who grew up with his grandmother. When she became ill, he nursed her at home. "I love old people," he says. He came to Germany to train as a geriatric nurse.

He gets along very well with most people in the old people's home, but there are some residents who "are afraid of my skin, my color.” This came as a shock to him: "I am a human being!" However, with the exception of one woman, he's since won everyone over. "This black man is nice," they say. He laughs. Later, though, he admits that in the evenings he's often very sad. As a single man, he's still living in the refugee hostel.

Germany: Carers from overseas

Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author