Highly qualified refugees struggle to gain employment in Germany

Text by Lauren Lewis | @lauren_m_lewis

Graphics by Nik Dumroese | @niklaasdumroese

Photos by Sachi Sinhara | @sachi.sinhara

Each night, Alaa Kasaab stands in front of a mirror, practicing both her English and her German, desperately trying to remove any trace of an accent.

An English teacher by training, the 23-year-old is struggling to keep current in her first foreign language, while also acquiring the high level of German proficiency she needs. Once she reaches it she can apply for a teacher’s course in her new country.

“What job can I get here? Nothing,” Kasaab said, clasping her hand into a fist. ”In Aleppo, in Syria, an English literature certificate would qualify me to be a teacher because I would know English. I would be a teacher and get hired.”

Claudia Hubatsch, left, helps a student learn German articles at a language integration class for a group of recently-arrived Syrian teachers at the University of Potsdam on May 30, 2016. Refugees coming to Germany have traditionally found it hard to reenter their profession due to language barriers and unrecognized qualifications from their home countries, something many in the country are trying to change. Photo by Sachi Sinhara / @sachi.sinhara

In Germany, Kasaab is experiencing a complicated aspect of the current migration movement. With an aging society, the country has a need for qualified workers; in Berlin, for example, elementary school teachers are in high demand. Yet the language barrier and a rigid system of certifications make gaining employment particularly difficult for professionals, whether they are teachers, nurses, engineers or computer technicians.

As a result, of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who arrived in Germany in the past 12 months, very few have found work.


This April, the German federal labor office reported nearly 650,000 unfilled positions, a sign of a humming economy, but also of an ongoing labor shortage. The shrinking workforce is expected to remain a concern in the upcoming years, says Hannes Koch, a journalist who covers economics for several German newspapers.

“Some institutes say there’s only a gap of 2 million, but there’s some papers saying the gap will be 6 million,” Koch said. “We definitely need additional workers, employees, to keep up our economy and to keep up our gross national product.”


No wonder, then, that many German companies greeted the recent influx of refugees with hope. After all, almost 70 percent of the newcomers are estimated to have a secondary or university level of education. Nearly one-third of companies plan on hiring refugees in the future, according toan industry survey. But getting university degrees and previous work experience recognized is difficult.

Dennis Hoenig-Ohnsorg, head of corporate social responsibility at Zalando, an e-commerce company based in Berlin with nearly 10,000 employees, points to German laws and regulations as a reason why his firm has yet to hire one of the recent immigrants.

“Germany is a highly bureaucratic country, where it’s really difficult to hire someone without the prerequisites,” he said.


Others, like David Jacob, creator of an online job portal named Workeer, hope to triumph over bureaucracy by directly connecting qualified workers with potential employers.

“The crafts or IT companies, they’re struggling to find people,” Jacob said. “For them this is a chance to really reach out to a new group of people with new potentials and new backgrounds.”

The teaching profession, in particular, has experienced shortages in some areas of the country. For that reason, German states like Berlin have been actively trying to persuade workers from other professions to become teachers through a fast-track system that shortens the usual training period necessary for certification.


The fast track, however, generally isn’t open to refugees, even if they worked as teachers in their home countries. Kasaab estimates it will take her five to six years to qualify as a teacher in the public German school system, even though she already studied English Literature in her hometown of Aleppo for four years.

This spring, she was accepted into an intensive course at the University of Potsdam for refugees with a teaching background oran interest in becoming teachers. The course aims to introduce refugee teachers to the German educational system before they begin their formal training, and provides rigorous language lessons so participants can learn German as quickly as possible.

Students discuss topics such as the differences in culture when teaching and in the classroom, said Miriam Vock, an education researcher at the university. “It’s a very interesting perspective to bring Syrian teachers and German teachers together to educate students and exchange views on teaching.”


While the university focuses on intercultural exchange, Kasaab’s priority is to blend in. A Muslim woman, she decided to remove her head covering, eliminating a potential hurdle to entering the teaching force. Some German states, including Berlin, refuse to hire teachers wearing the hijab or any other religious symbol in school.

Kasaab says her decision was motivated by the desire to exercise her freedom of choice. “I don’t agree with forcing women teachers to remove their covers because that’s discrimination. I get why they say it, but I don’t agree with it,” she said, grabbing at her hair and twirling the dark brown curls between her fingertips. “It wasn’t because of that or anyone, I just wanted to be able to work again.”

Kasaab brought all of the necessary education documents and certification with her on her journey from Syria, even getting them translated to German to ease the process. Yet her degree and experience are not comparable to that of a German teaching diploma, which requires not only coursework in instructional methods and specific majors, but also 18 months of training in the classroom.

“I thought maybe I had wasted my certificates and studying for years for nothing because I am starting from scratch here,” she said. “But I know I have to keep trying to learn this system. My first step is to learn the language. I don’t want to give up.”

For the new generation of refugee children, Kasaab’s persistence might prove crucial. Silke Donath, vice-principal at Johanna-Eck-Schule, a secondary school in Berlin where many students are learning German as a second language, believes that refugee teachers could ease communication between immigrant parents and schools.

“We need people of those communities in schools, because it’s easier to communicate,” Donath said. “People who grew up in Berlin or Germany, they know the system, they know how to navigate it, but they don’t know the culture, the language. So there’s a cultural background that you need to use, too.”


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