A small town in Germany is showing the rest of the world what helping refugees actually means

A reason to smile.
A reason to smile.
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
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Marburg, Germany

Germany is currently facing two major societal changes: an aging workforce and the influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers.

Over the weekend, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, told a local news outlet that “the high point of the migrant crisis is behind us.” But de Maizière’s cautious optimism means little for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have already entered Germany. With more than half a million unfilled jobs, there are potentially many opportunities available for motivated refugees and immigrants, but the path from newcomer to integrated employee and member of society can be more challenging than anticipated.

A recent study conducted by Report Mainz, a German news magazine show, found that so far only 200 migrants have found work at Germany’s top 30 companies, including Adidas, BMW, and Deutsche Lufthansa. Only one of the firms has taken on refugees as permanent staff members.

Preparing and connecting those refugees to jobs—whether at big or small firms—depends in large part on the innovations of administrators and bureaucrats behind the scenes.

Administrators like Andrea Martin, the director of one of Germany’s most successful unemployment centers. Martin warns that if Germany fails to train refugees now, they may be dependent on benefits for decades to come. “If we don’t support them, if we don’t help them, if we don’t inform them, if we don’t qualify them, they won’t be part of this needed labor force,” she says.

The sheer scale of the new arrivals, essentially all of whom don’t speak German and are unfamiliar with the country’s labor system—at least 1.1 million in the past year—is testing job centers like Martin’s. But the question of how to provide opportunities is more urgent than ever, as chilling acts of violence, from Paris to Brussels, heighten fears of homegrown terrorists nourished in alienated neighborhoods.

Stiff competition

Many companies cite a lack of university preparation or language fluency as the reason they don’t hire refugees.

“I think you will be very hard pressed to turn these people into the kind of highly skilled individuals the labor market needs,” says George Menz, a professor of political economy at Goldsmiths College, University of London. “A lot of the more recent immigrants who have come into the country are very difficult to assess in terms of their potential to be at all integrable into the labor market.”

Menz adds that Germany has the entire European Union to recruit from to fill labor shortages, especially from high-unemployment countries like Greece and Spain.

Menz’s views highlight how Germany’s labor market, often admired for its efficiency, has an unfortunate flip side: It can be hard to break into for new arrivals. Refugees often come from countries where it’s common to get trained on the job by following others.

But even Germany’s factory jobs, where many positions are available, require years of specific training. For older refugees who left thriving careers back home, it’s difficult to get recognition for their credentials in Germany’s system. Self-employment and entrepreneurship, traditionally a route to wealth for immigrants in new countries, is also complicated. Just to open a hair salon or a mechanic shop, you need a diploma.

We’ve been here before

Local job centers—the key contact for anyone without a job in Germany—may hold the answer. Martin’s job center in Marburg, a university town of 75,000 that received 2,800 refugees in 2015, is pioneering a model to connect incoming refugees with jobs that stabilize their lives. She thinks the pessimism surrounding refugees’ job prospects is counterproductive and defeatist.

But new strategies are urgently needed. Her fear—that refugees will become dependent on welfare benefits and temporary jobs—is rooted in Germany’s past experiences with the Turkish guest worker system in the 1960s, and the influx of Kurdish Iraqi refugees in the 1990s. Though many of those immigrants and refugees arrived with skills, they remained unable to secure steady work. Those who did find jobs often could not use their prior education or professional skills. They clustered together in low-income neighborhoods with fewer employment opportunities.

Martin witnessed these challenges firsthand as a German language teacher in the 1990s, noting that her husband, who is an Iraqi Kurd, was never able to use his geology degree in Germany. “The frustrating thing is when I compare the families I got to know 20 years ago in my German classes, with a lot of skills, hopes and enthusiasm,” she says. “And I see them 20 years later in my jobs center, without a job, dependent on benefits. This makes me sick.”

Simple changes, lots of red tape

Martin thinks job centers should be working to meet refugees halfway, instead of rigidly following the rulebook.

For example, her job center gives refugees more time to complete internships and notifies them of programs they qualify for in their native languages. Both of these seemingly simple changes require securing approval from the state bureaucracy and extra effort from her staff. While sometimes controversial, Martin’s track record indicates that so far, her approach is working.

The unemployment rate in Marburg is about half the national average of 6%, and of the 4,564 people served by Marburg’s job center last year, only 19.3% are foreigners. Nationally, more than 40% of long-term unemployed people are foreign-born.

Her biggest priority is steering refugees toward Germany’s famous vocational programs, which she thinks provides the best shot at eventually landing a long-term career with upward mobility. The traineeships place students directly in businesses for two years while they are studying, and are often cited as a secret to Germany’s economic success. But the educational pathway usually starts in high school, making the system harder to enter for outsiders. The pay during the apprenticeship period is also low, so Martin has to explain to applicants why it’s worth it in the long-term.

Plus, Martin says, many foreigners still assume a university degree in a big city is the best path to success. “I talk to so many immigrant parents about the value of apprenticeships. And for them it’s still not as good as going to university,” she says. But in reality, she’s seen past generations of immigrants drop out of school because they underestimated the difficulty of studying in a new language or got bogged down in non-competitive fields.

Martin also emphasizes that Germany strictly regulates small business, something that may surprise newcomers who might see entrepreneurship as their best path. In Germany, “without a reasonable apprenticeship, you cannot open a reasonable business,” she notes.

To counteract these assumptions, Martin has created a special program at the job center to assess refugees’ skills. She also takes them on tours of pharmaceutical factories and other companies in the region. “They see that in a hall with about 2,000 square meters, they have 20 machines and only two people working there,” she says. “Not like in Syria, where there’s two machines and 20 people. So my hope is then they realize that an apprenticeship in Germany is very important.“

Talking it out

Of course, all of this information is useless if the refugees can’t understand it. Martin was quick to seek out Arabic translation help last year as the first wave Syrians landed on her city’s doorstep.

“You’d think this would be self-evident,” she says. “It isn’t.” In fact, translation is a controversial strategy: job center administrators in other cities have actually prohibited employees from speaking English with clients (or other languages for that matter) even if they both know the language. The reason? National law specifies that German administrative procedures must be conducted in German.

But Martin, who also studied law, says there is room for flexibility. “If you insist on speaking German, this will end in very bad communication,” she says. And for immigrants, not understanding the law’s intricacies can have serious consequences. “We are a system with strict rules,” Martin explains. “If you don’t cooperate with us, we don’t give you any money.”

If job seekers break the stipulations in their contract with the job center—like not showing up to a meeting or failing to complete a training—their unemployment stipend will be cut.

For someone who doesn’t understand the system, these losses can seem punitive or discriminatory rather than part of a highly ordered matrix of incentives. So every month a translator, Jamal Algedri, a Yemeni engineer who has lived in Germany since he was 18, gives a presentation on the job center’s rules in Arabic. “When refugees understand that the caseworker has specific requests that are not random, the communication is easier. Not easy, but easier,” Algedri says.

Piecemeal solutions

Martin also reached out to the local university’s Arabic department to create a program for new refugees. She tasked the university students with making a kind of “curriculum” explaining laws and opportunities for Marburg’s Arabic-speaking refugees. The university sees the cooperation as a win-win arrangement that helps students add real-world translation qualifications to their degree while creating connections between refugees and the city.

Magdalena Suess is one of the students involved in the program, working on a presentation about government support for parents. She tells Quartz that even as a German she does not understand all the nuts and bolts of the laws.We are not used to this topic. We have no children yet, and the bureaucratic stuff is very complicated here in Germany,” she says. “It’s very hard for us to get into this topic in German first, and then in Arabic, it’s even harder.”

Other students in the graduate program said it was strange that the federal government wasn’t communicating this information in a more systematic way itself, instead of relying on students

“I believe that often reality is quite different from what is written in the law,” Anna-Therese Bachmann says. “But because we don’t know, we will just present, like: ‘that’s how it should be,’ But obviously, it might turn out for them that it’s more difficult or easier, or there’s certain ways around things and we really can’t help them with that. Which is sad.”

The job center translator, Algedri, also believes that more should be done at the federal level to educate refugees about Germany’s job system. “There is help on the individual level. People help, but the problem is much bigger,” he says. “How you receive and integrate them into society is not an easy process.

Getting the message across

Despite some misgivings, Martin’s efforts do seem to be getting through to her audience, many who are young men with their whole working lives ahead of them. Abdel Rahman, 29, has been in Marburg for three months and is already practicing German and looking for a gap in the labor market that he could fill.

A barber in Syria, he quickly learned he would need to earn a diploma to cut hair in Germany. Instead, he’s decided to go to vocational school to become a caregiver for the elderly, or a train conductor. Abdel Rahman, who asked only to be identified by his first name because his family still lives in Syria, said Martin’s Arabic presentation helped him make the decision.

“She said learn the language, number one, and then I advise you—advice I swear I remember,” he tells Quartz. “She said about 10 times one after the other, ‘apprenticeship, apprenticeship, apprenticeship.’ And after that, I decided, okay, I will do an apprenticeship.”

Martin says she’s optimistic that if she can get more job centers on board, Germany can change the outcome for this generation of refugees. She’s been asked to speak about her approach at national conferences for job center administrators, and her colleagues—even some who once dismissed her ideas—are beginning to take note.

She shares the translations she has commissioned with them, and will also post the students’ presentations online so any job center can use them. Martin is also petitioning the federal ministries to make national changes to help refugees, like giving immigrants more time to complete apprenticeships.

“Work is better than no work. Understanding is better than not understanding, and we are public service!” Martin says. “This is a point that I don’t discuss. We are a service for the people.”