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Checkin in with 'quota refugees'

Janine Albrecht, Hamburg / cc
May 5, 2016

Three years ago, Germany took in several thousand Syrians as "quota refugees." They didn't have to apply for asylum and were allowed to look for work straight away. So how are they doing today?

Deutschland Kontingentsflüchtlinge
Image: DW/J. Albrecht

On the coffee table is a little plate of Syrian cookies. A friend has sent them from home. The television is tuned to a Syrian channel. In front of it, on the sofa, sits Zakiah Bshara (pictured). She left her homeland at the age of 71 and fled with her husband and son to her daughter in Germany. That was almost two years ago. Today, she lives in Kiel.

Arwa Bchara, Bshara's daughter, is 35. She couldn't stand living in Syria any longer. Every day, on the way to work in Damascus, she had to drive past a village held by fighters of the "Islamic State" (IS). One day the extremists shot at her. "In their view, women are not allowed to drive," Bchara said. She turned around, drove home and never went back to work. She lived in constant fear of what would happen if IS came to her village as well.

Like many Syrians, Arwa Bchara initially fled to Lebanon. She stayed there for a year. "I had a good job with a big insurance company, but my parents and my disabled brother wouldn't have been able to live in Beirut," she said. So she registered with the United Nations' refugee agency, to come to Germany as a "quota refugee." Almost a year after the German government's decision to fly 5,000 Syrian refugees out of Lebanon, in March 2014, Arwa Bchara was also given a ticket to Germany.

Learning the language

Bchara's new life was based in the northern German city of Kiel. She initially couldn't focus on her language course: The first thing she wanted to do was bring her family to Germany. Günay Turan, a refugee advisor with the Workers' Welfare Association (AWO) in Kiel, said this was very common with refugees. "Their thoughts are with the families they've left behind," she said. "People need time to settle in here first." Basically, though, Turan said all refugees are trying to learn German.

"I actually didn't go to the language course at all," Bchara said in hesitant but comprehensible German. "I always had so much to do." She said she taught herself the language, learning from friends and from the television - and did it so successfully that she recently passed her B1 certificate in German.

Her mother, on the other hand, can only speak a few words of German. Enough, at least, to go shopping in the supermarket. "I'd like to do a language course," Bshara said in Arabic. She has also needed time to get used to living in Germany. Six months ago, she lost her husband. She's not completely isolated in Germany, though. She's in contact with two neighbors: a woman from Iraq and another who's German. "When our German neighbor comes round, the two of them sit together and drink coffee and watch television," her daughter said. They can't talk to one another.

Turan said that integration will be apparent over the generations. Children and young people are therefore at the heart of what she does. "We mustn't waste any time if we want these people to be integrated here," she said.

Long road to getting a job

Bchara is a proud woman; her big brown eyes flash when she talks about her life in Syria and the consulting firm she built up there after completing her law degree. She would like to work in this field again, but she also knows how difficult it is. "You can't do anything here with a law degree, initially," Turan said. "The outlook is a bit better in technical professions - as an engineer or skilled workman, for example." But Turan said there were more hurdles than language courses - such as getting diplomas and professional certificates recognized, or additional training.

The lawyer will soon do an internship to improve her German. Turan is offering her the opportunity of working at the AWO, as an interpreter for counseling interviews. "We've already had quite a few migrants who used to come for counseling themselves helping us later as translators," she said.

For Bchara, that's one more step on the road to getting a job. She has also set her sights on a degree in international law. After two years in Germany, it seems that her mind is now free to focus on her career - although the war in Syria is still very much a part of her as many friends and relatives still live there. "Do you know what a beautiful country Syria was before the war?" she asked.

Mother and daughter agree: They're happy living in Germany. But Zakiah Bshara would like to go back to Syria after the war. "That's my mother," Arwa Bchara said. "I want to stay here and give something back to Germany for helping me."