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Refugees in science jobs

September 25, 2015

Many of the refugees coming to Germany are highly skilled. Scientific and academic institutions are now preparing special programs to integrate the most qualified.

Laborantin selektiert Pflanzenkeime
Image: DW/F. Schmidt

Refugees coming to Germany first of all need to find some rest, calm and medical support. But once those immediate needs are met, they will ask themselves what they are doing with their new life in Germany.

And on the flipside, German universities and science institutions are now looking at ways of offering something to the highly qualified among these new immigrants - because nothing is worse for an engineer or scientist than to waste his time and energy.

One of these highly qualified scientists who recently arrived in Germany is Muhammad Rashid. The Kurd made his academic career in Aleppo - and finished his university diploma in analytical chemistry. In 2004 his government sent him abroad - to China - to top off his studies with a PhD. At the time, his career path seemed to be on track - even though there was unrest in the Kurdish areas of Syria.

"When I started my studies in China, I would have never thought about the possibility of not being able to return home," Rashid recalls. "A good job was probably already reserved for me in Syria."

However, seven years later - in the middle of writing his doctoral thesis - civil war broke out at home. To make things worse, Muhammad suffered a painful personal tragedy: His wife contracted an aggressive form of cancer and died - after only six months. His son was seven years old - and six of those he spent in China. Muhammed's younger daughter was born in China.

A return for the three was not possible: After Rashid's brother deserted the Syrian army, Rashid could not risk returning home. "My brother did not want to fight civilians," Rashid explains. "And then I heard from friends that my name was on a list at the embassy. I received my stipend from the Syrian government through the Chinese authorities, but then the Syrian government said: 'No more money for you!' Thank god, the Chinese government gave me money for the last year, and I was able to finish my doctoral exams."

Mammoth task

Muhammed is not alone. Just ask Christian Hülshörster about how many Syrians were going through the same thing. He's in charge of handing out scholarships for students from the Middle East at the German Academic Exchange Service - DAAD.

"We had a co-financed government stipend program together with the Syrian education ministry," Hülshörster recalls. "The program was successful and went well, until 2011. Then the civil war broke out and out of a sudden, the students here received no more money. For us at the DAAD - we had to do something. We could not just leave the people to their own fate. The Foreign Ministry came to the rescue with a program that allowed the students to finish their studies and get their degrees."

Integrationskurs Deutsch als Fremdsprache ARCHIV 2011
Language is difficult. Also, the recognition of academic degrees can be a problem.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Today, those students have a good chance on the labor market. Most have studied subjects that are highly desired - all over the world. The Syrian government only sent their best students abroad.

"The better the students were in the university entrance tests, the more likely they were being directed into the fields of medicine, engineering or science," the German stipend-expert describes the Syrian academic system. "I am quite confident that a qualified engineer who has his bachelor degree from Syria and now finishes his master through our stipend program will eventually land a good job."

Stipends from the federal government and the German states

That was just the beginning for the German Academic Exchange Service. Once the students in Germany were cared for, the federal government launched a program for Syrian refugees - the Leadership for Syria Program - financed by the Foreign Ministry.

"The only precondition was a Syrian passport," Hülshörster says. "Where the people were at the time of application was not relevant. The only thing that we did require from those refugees in the countries neighboring Syria was a formal registration with the UN-High Commissioner for Refugees."

Then two German states added their specific refugee-stipend programs. And the DAAD received money from the German development aid to pay stipends to refugees, who are in Jordan and want to study at a university, there.

Fraunhofer-Society wants to get people into employment

And also Germany's Fraunhofer-Society, the largest institution for applied research, is working to integrate highly qualified refugees into the German scientific and academic communities. The first step in that direction was the creation of a task-force. "On the one hand, we want to launch a program to prepare people for a more general professional education in Germany," says Beate Koch from the Fraunhofer headquarters in Munich. "On the other hand, we want to help qualified academic professionals to find employment in scientific institutions like Fraunhofer or other organizations."

Dr. Muhammad Rashid mit Kindern am Rhein
Muhammad Rashid hopes for employment in the Rhineland - his children are at home here, now.Image: privat

Muhammad Rashid would love to find his place in one of the many Fraunhofer institutes. After finishing his dissertation two years ago, he came directly from China to Germany. Shortly after concluding his studies, he was invited to a professional conference in Frankfurt. To get his children here, he had to fight a battle with beaurocracy - lasting six months.

Hurdles: Learning German and getting academic titles recognized

He is still struggling to get his doctoral thesis fully recognized here. Until then, he is not allowed to formally use his PhD-title in combination with his name. But he can apply for a job with his PhD-certificate. And he is working hard to find matching employment, either at a university or in the industry.

"I don't believe Germans have a much easier time finding a job," Rashid says. "I have applied at some companies, but only received rejections. At least, next week I am going to start with an internship at the Bonn University's Chemistry department - dealing with water." Rashid also spends a lot of time in German language lessons: "The language is a problem, but I think that at a university I could also work and publish in English," he says.

One thing is clear to the single father: There is no way back to Aleppo. His children don't even know Syria that well. After one year in Germany, they already feel at home here. The son is in sixth grade at a grammar school, and the daughter in second grade. When it comes to the language, both are in far better shape than their father.