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Integrating Syrians: A Discussion in Germany

BERLIN—A recent one-day event here focused on how to integrate Syrians in Europe and provide them with access to higher education.

Jusoor, a non-governmental organization supported by Syrians that focuses on youth, held its 4th Annual Global Conference on June 4 titled, “Syrians as Global Citizens: Paths Towards Success in Europe.” The meeting featured two panels, the first concentrating on higher-education and vocational-training efforts in Germany, and the second on integration issues and employment opportunities.

Chief among the former is the “Leadership for Syria” program organized by the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, which provides 200 scholarships for Syrians.

The leadership program also seeks to inform Syrians about good governance and civil society in the hope that the participants will serve as Syria’s future leaders.

Two of Germany’s federal states, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg, have contributed an additional 71 scholarships, for a total of 271.

“It’s a big number for our organization, but it’s only a small piece of the situation,” said Christian Müller, the director of the department of strategy at DAAD. Müller said DAAD received over 5,000 applications last year for these openings. DAAD also offers scholarships to Syrians living in countries neighboring Syria for study in the Arab region.

Florian Kohstall of the Free University (FU) of Berlin encouraged Syrian applicants to look beyond degree programs like medicine that are highly regarded in their home country and consider the full range of options.

“There are over 100 programs at the FU in Berlin, and many are well-suited to fitting an individual’s needs,” he said. “But it’s important that universities offer students the right advising.”

Müller said Syrians often overlook German vocational training that does not lead to a university degree, even programs like physical therapy that are highly prized in Syria.

Bashar Bakerly, a DAAD alumnus from Syria who has lived in Germany for eight years, also urged students to “break free” of social pressures for degrees coveted back in their homeland.

“You need to redefine success—it’s not just what you study,” he told conference attendees.

Panelists also discussed challenges facing Syrians upon arrival in Germany, including difficulties in having their qualifications recognized, and the time lag between arrival and when they can start studying.

Syrian students at the conference said the asylum process could be improved. Language classes offered as part of Germany’s state-run integration educational program do not go far enough or fast enough, some said.

“The asylum process contains a lot of wasted time,” said Iyas Adi, a Syrian who has been in Germany for a month. “It’s not very productive.”

Syrians students also lamented that a traditional source of funding had been cut off to them: Erasmus grants are no longer being offered to students at Syrian universities to study in Europe. The program was cut off last year.

“Erasmus was very good at helping overcome obstacles like funding and recognition, and it organized ‘Erasmus buddies’ to facilitate contact with local students,” said Ammar Saifo, a student associated with Syrian Researchers, a volunteer Syrian organization that promotes science.

Vincent Zimmer of Kiron University, a free online university for refugees started in Germany last year, said groups like Kiron were pressuring the European Commission to establish scholarships for refugees, and that the Commission was expected to make a decision this autumn.

Panelists in the second discussion focused on career development. Volunteers at Secret Escapes, a luxury travel company, have started working with refugees to help them create marketable CVs in German. The company has helped 20 people create resumes, about five of whom have landed some work. “On some CVs, we persuaded candidates to list “Flucht” or flight as one of their skills,” said Jeroen van Marle, noting that surviving the dangerous journey to Europe demonstrates tenacity and perseverance—soft skills that might appeal to employers.

Van Marle said that many of their CVs are posted on Workeer, an online job market specifically aimed at matching refugees with interested employers.

Max Klasen of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), a German trade union, said working with individual companies was essential to overcoming reluctance to hiring refugees.

Klasen said he has worked with several small and medium-sized enterprises in Germany to introduce potential employers to appropriate job seekers, like Syrian engineers. In these cases, a series of discussions between Syrians and German employers sometimes led to a job offer once trust had been established.

Another obstacle faced by state employment agencies in Germany is the increasingly heterogeneous mix of refugees’ qualifications. While earlier waves of Syrian refugees often had high qualifications, the education and skill levels of more recent arrivals have dropped, with many lacking a high school diploma, said Renusch.

Some groups in Berlin are working to change that.

Interspersed between the panels were a series of seven-minute “Lightning Talks” modeled on TED Talks in which entrepreneurs and cultural activists presented their ideas and strategies for helping young Syrians become better engaged.

Refugees on Rails is a program that aims to help Syrians and other refugees meet the demands of today’s job market. Co-founded by Mouaz Al Qudsi, a Syrian studying computer science at the Technical University of Berlin, Refugees on Rails teaches refugees highly sought-after programming and software development skills. The program also works with volunteer organizations to give students donated laptops.

“Currently we work with over 100 students from Syria, Iran and elsewhere, and about 20 volunteers from the E.U., U.S. and Israel,” said Al Qudsi. Founded in Berlin, Refugees on Rails has since held “meet-ups” in other German cities. Al Qudsi said the organization also plans to expand to the United States and other European countries soon.

Some of the meeting’s participants noticed an absence of students, particularly Germans, at the conference, saying they were crucial in sharing their experiences.

Participants said German universities are interested in integrating young people into their institutions, though at a loss about how to reach the new arrivals. But that gap works both ways.

Kenan Mehlem, 26, is an architect from Syria seeking to enroll in a master’s degree program this fall. His main challenge is complying with all the application requirements. Seeking help from German institutions such as DAAD and Free University is essential, he said.

Jusoor cofounder and board member Aziza Osman agreed. “We learned that there is lack of connection between German organizations and Syrians,” she said. Students were asking for services like online lessons in German and for connections to mentors, without realizing that organizations already offer these services.


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