Refugee Success Stories Finding a New Life in Germany

Since the mass influx of refugees to Germany in 2015, one-third have found jobs in the country. We profile four success stories that show just how far some asylum-seekers can get in the country if they remain persistent.
Von Katrin Elger und Anna-Lena Jaensch
Nour Taleb of Syria has successfully established herself as an environmental engineer in Dortmund, Germany.

Nour Taleb of Syria has successfully established herself as an environmental engineer in Dortmund, Germany.

Foto: Milos Djuric/ DER SPIEGEL

When close to 900,000 asylum-seekers reached Germany in the summer and fall of 2015, many business leaders here expressed confidence they could integrate the refugees into the labor market, with some even bordering on the euphoric. Dieter Zetsche, the head of Daimler at the time, said he hoped, in the "best-case scenario," that immigration could lay the foundations for the "next German economic miracle." That happened previously in the 1950s and 1960s, just after the war, when guest workers arriving from Turkey and other countries made a major contribution to the country's economic upswing. In 2015, business leaders set their sights on filling vacancies with highly motivated Syrians and Afghans in the near future.

But their hopes, at least initially, were dashed pretty quickly. It turned out that many refugees hadn't finished high school and didn't have any vocational training approximating German standards. To top things off, 15 percent were found to be illiterate. Language also proved to be a major barrier for landing a job. German is not an easy language to learn and bears little relation to Arabic linguistically. Asylum procedures that often last many months created additional delays before people could enter the workforce. The more highly qualified among the refugees also suffered from the fact that the qualifications they did have either weren't accepted or were only partially recognized.

Now, four years after the massive influx of refugees, many experts have been surprised by the remarkable success Germany has had in integrating them into the labor market, despite all the challenges. According to the German government's Institute for Employment Research (IAB), more than 400,000 refugees from the most significant countries of asylum origin have found work. That's one in three. IAB expert Herbert Brücker predicts that around 40 percent of the refugees of working age will have found jobs by this autumn. According to the Federal Employment Agency, almost 70 percent of Germans have a contractual job, compared to 50 percent of all foreigners and just under 35 percent of refugees. That number is steadily rising. However, the Federal Employment Agency also acknowledges that integration into the labor market is a long-term project. Some 600,000 people who have sought asylum and are of working age are jobless in Germany and recipients of social welfare payments.


Many of those who have found jobs are working for temp agencies, in gastronomy, in agriculture or for cleaning companies. But the number who are landing staff jobs as doctors, engineers and teachers is also increasing. In addition to learning German in recent years, many have also furthered their professional qualifications.

We visited four refugees who did all they could from the very beginning to achieve success in Germany. They are not representative of the entire refugee population, but they do show what is possible when determination is met with government support.

On the Construction Site in a Headscarf

Nour Taleb, 33, from Aleppo, Syria

Before she says anything, Nour often pauses until she has formulated an impeccable sentence in her head. Taleb has an almost perfect command of German grammar, despite having been in the country for just four years, and complex administrative German is part of her daily work. The environmental engineer is employed as a site manager at the Civil Engineering Office for the city of Dortmund.

One Thursday afternoon in September, the Syrian is sitting in the office of her boss Sylvia Uehlendahl. "It may be hard to believe, but sometimes she even helps German colleagues formulate emails," says the head of the civil engineering office. The two have known each other since Taleb sat on the podium at an event organized in Dortmund two years ago by the Permenti integration project, an organization that helps qualified refugee women find jobs. Uehlendahl says she was "impressed by how self-confident and competent" Taleb was as she spoke of her professional experience, despite having only arrived in Germany a short time before. She suggested to the Syrian that she ought to apply for a position at the office.

According to the Cologne-based think tank German Economic Institute, civil engineering is an occupation that is typically dominated by men, and it suffers from a major shortage of workers. Taleb had everything the city of Dortmund needed: She had studied environmental engineering in Aleppo and has professional experience. Back in Syria, she also had to gain respect in a male-dominated industry, but she says it "wasn't difficult."

By 2012, Taleb was responsible for more than 500 companies in an industrial area in the city of Aleppo, monitoring emissions and testing wastewater samples. She also drew up plans for emergency water supply.

As the war grew more destructive, the family went to Egypt, where Taleb worked in administration at an engineering office. Then, in late 2015, she followed her parents to Germany.

She wanted to get back to work as soon as possible once she got here, so she took German classes and completed internships at a water industry association and at a pump manufacturer. After work, she would watch construction site videos on the internet to avoid stumbling over vocabulary during job interviews.

Environmental engineer Nour Taleb at work in Dortmund

Environmental engineer Nour Taleb at work in Dortmund

Foto: Milos Djuric/ DER SPIEGEL

Taleb now supervises the city's road projects at the Civil Engineering Office. A woman, from Syria, with a headscarf? "There's no problem with it," Taleb says. "I'm nice to people, and they're nice to me." Taleb says she does often get questions about her headscarf. "But I don't mind. I'll answer any questions about it, and then it's OK."

Taleb knows her career ascent is remarkable, but she doesn't think about it much. She makes a lot of things sound easy, including her recipe for success. "You have to try everything you can from the very beginning," she says. "And remain optimistic. That's how I did it, and it worked." The engineer laughs a lot when she talks. Her boss says she's a sociable person and that she's fully integrated into the team.

This summer, Taleb organized the company outing: a canoe trip with 25 people. "I actually wanted to ride a Segway," she says, grinning. "But I was outvoted. That's just the way it is in a good democracy."

A Knack for Language and His Own Salon

Mamo Mohammad, 21, from Qamishli in northern Syria

The elderly woman glances impatiently at the pink watch on her wrist. Mamo Mohammad briefly sets his scissors down. "I'll be right with you, Anne," he says, stroking her arm, "One minute." He rubs a little gel in his hands and massages it into another customer's hair. It's busy this afternoon in his salon, Malu Hairways, in Wolfenbüttel, just south of Wolfsburg. Mohammad has little time to answer questions on the side.

He was only 11 years old when he learned his first hairdressing skills at his uncle's salon in Qamishli. It's normal to work as a child in Syria.

After the war began, Mohammad fled to Turkey with his mother and little brother. In 2015, the three were granted permission to come to Germany, where their father and big brother were already waiting for them.

Hairdresser Mamo Mohammad at his studio in Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony

Hairdresser Mamo Mohammad at his studio in Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony

Foto: Milos Djuric/ DER SPIEGEL

Mohammad went to secondary school and for the first few weeks, he felt lonely. Everything was foreign to him: the language, the culture, the food. He had hoped to make new friends in his class, but his classmates didn't understand him. "When you're new in a country, it's always hard in the beginning," he explains. Mohammad was homesick and even missed the work, the feeling of the hair between his fingers and the conversations he had with his colleagues.

He did his compulsory internship for school at a salon in Wolfenbüttel and he was met with enthusiasm when he showed the staff there what he had learned in Syria. Customers praised his empathetic nature and colleagues liked his team spirit and commitment. For the first time, Mohammad says, he felt like he had landed in the right place.

What was originally intended as a two-week internship became a two-month gig, and he was also invited to do his professional training there. He switched to a vocational school, but initially received poor grades. He didn't let it get to him, though. "I wanted to prove to myself and my family that I could make my dream come true," he says. Mohammad listened to his colleagues and noted popular sentences and topics of conversation. He learned very quickly how much Germans love talking about the weather.

"The people in the salon didn't laugh at me when I made mistakes, they corrected me," he says. The hairdresser now speaks Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and German fluently. As his German vocabulary grew, his performance at school also improved. He passed the written final examination with an average grade.

He says his wife, who he met one year after arriving in Germany, also gave him significant motivation. A German with Colombian roots, she encouraged him to open his own hairdressing salon when he discovered an available storefront in the city center. "It's important to me to be my own boss," says Mohammad. His wife is now expecting their first child. "I want to be able to provide for my family well later and not have to worry about my job."

In Germany, one out of five company founders is an immigrant, in part because it's often more difficult for them to land jobs as employees. But refugees also have a hard time as company owners. After all, what bank is going to grant a loan to be paid off over the course of several years to a person who only has a temporary residence permit?

The whole family helped to make Mohammad's dream come true -- some with money, others by working to help set up the salon or by providing the tools he needed. The salon is simply and stylishly furnished, a small room with mirrors and lots of light. "We did everything ourselves," the hairdresser says. He says his relatives all helped out, his uncle, his brother, many friends and his stepfather in particular. "I couldn't have afforded it any other way," he says.

Business is going well and Mohammad has hired two employees. One of them is also from Syria and attended the same school as Mohammad, but he didn't pass the final exam to become a hairdresser. Now he wants to take it again -- and Malu Hairways is giving him a second chance.

Finding His Way as a Young Man in Germany

Guhulamsakhi Batory, 20, from the Afghan province of Wardak

Whenever Guhulamsakhi Batory started longing for another life, he would watch YouTube videos on his mobile phone or log in to Facebook. Batory was looking for new friends, far away from the Afghan province of Wardak. Sometimes, he says, he would simply enter an international-sounding name in the search box on Facebook. If he thought someone looked nice in their photo, he'd send them a friend request. As a child, he chatted for a while almost every day with a girl from Belgium to learn English. He also made friends with a teenager from Colombia. "I thought it was so cool that I could suddenly talk to people from other countries," he says.

At that time, he decided he wanted to become a pilot so that he could see the world -- or to do "something involving the internet." Such a thing would have been impossible for him in Afghanistan. He says there are many Taliban in the province he comes from and that they tried to recruit him. "But I didn't want anything to do with war and guns."

At the age of 14, his family left Afghanistan and moved to Iran. From there, he set off on his own to Germany, where his older brother was already living and working as a welder in Dortmund. Batory says his father died in 2012 and that he no longer has contact with his mother and sisters in Iran.

Guhlamsakhi Batory of Afghanistan is training to become a web designer in Fulda.

Guhlamsakhi Batory of Afghanistan is training to become a web designer in Fulda.

Foto: Milos Djuric/ DER SPIEGEL

According to the German Ministry for Family Affairs, youth welfare offices had more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors like Batory in their charge in 2015 and their most frequent country of origin was Afghanistan. For the most part, unaccompanied minors have to get by on their own and make important decisions without support from their families -- a difficult prospect for many.

Batory speaks fluent German, has his own apartment and attends a vocational school. In his spare time, he boxes at a club three times a week and also participates in competitions at times.

At the moment he's training to become a web designer in the city of Fulda, which includes learning to program, edit photos and design graphics. "It's exactly what I always wanted to do," he says.

Batory adds that it was "really, really difficult" to get an apprenticeship in this profession with the German secondary school diploma that he obtained. "There are always offers for welders or in nursing homes," Batory says, "but I wouldn't have liked that."

Many underage refugees are under considerable pressure to earn money quickly in order to repay debts to smugglers and send money back to their families, a report from IAB states. As such, they often prefer to take unskilled jobs rather than go through relatively low paid training programs. The report states that in some cases, "intensive persuasion" is necessary in order to convey the message to young people that they will have "better chances on the labor market and prospects for better pay in the medium term if they receive their training." According to the IAB, around 44,000 individuals from the most important asylum countries were participating in training programs in July.

Batory, though, didn't need to be convinced. "I knew exactly what I wanted," he says. He spent a year and a half searching the internet day after day for training placement opportunities and he also received support from his supervisor at the Youth Welfare Office. "Ms. Neidert's help was very important to me," he says. "I wouldn't have known how to write an application myself." He adds that his older brother in Dortmund was also crucial. "I can always call him if I have a problem or if I have a success at something," says Batory. "Then he's super happy for me. That's good for motivation." When Batory graduated from secondary school, his brother bought him a MacBook with his welder's salary. "So that I can program and stuff," says Batory.

Batory's persistence paid off. He was able to land an internship at a mid-sized marketing agency. When it came to an end, the company offered him a six-month "entry-level qualification" with the prospect of being taken on as an apprentice later. Batory convinced his bosses and got the position. "You need small goals in life and big goals," he says. His small goal is to successfully complete his training. And the big one? "At some point, I want to set up my own agency in Germany."

A Gifted Family

The Alyousefs from Aleppo, Syria

From their dinner table, the Alyousefs can see all the way to inlets of the Baltic Sea. School is out for summer and the family has finally managed to come together again for a meal in the parent's apartment on the 10th floor of a communist-era prefab high-rise in the eastern city of Rostock.

They include father Abdulkader, a surgeon; mother Yusra, a gynecologist; the eldest daughter Batoul, who is currently looking for a job as an assistant doctor in dermatology; her fiancé Anas, also a surgeon; the daughters Heba and Yara, who are still studying medicine; and 16-year-old Mohammed, who is in 11th grade at a Rostock high school and is trying to decide if he'd rather study physics or medicine.

With his current grades at school, he has good prospects of being accepted to study medicine at a German university. Having received an A-, German is his second worst grade at the moment, with only his physical education grade being worse. Like the rest of the family -- who finished school back in Syria -- he is likely to finish with pretty much all A's. But he didn't managed to skip entire years like his sisters because he first had to learn German. When Mohammed shares that tidbit in German -- which is so good at this point that it sounds like he was born here -- you can tell that it bugs him a little. He's ambitious and always wants to be the best.

This summer, he was admitted to the Deutsche Schülerakademie, a government-sponsored program for gifted students. Mohammed took a course in "quantum mechanics."

Members of the Alyousef family of doctors in Rostock

Members of the Alyousef family of doctors in Rostock

Foto: Milos Djuric/ DER SPIEGEL

Education is extremely important to the Alyousefs and both parents come from families of doctors. Mother Yusra has 10 siblings, eight of whom are doctors. They are now spread all around the world. The eldest daughter Batoul, 26, says she "never had any other idea" for her future. It is, she says, a wonderful profession because it allows you to help people.

There are now 3,900 Syrian doctors working in German, the second largest group of foreign medical professionals after the Romanians. In order to have their qualifications recognized and receive permission to work in Germany, a review had to be conducted of their specialist knowledge and they also had to complete a special language test. Even if learning seems easy for everyone in the family and they also have the best references, the challenges in Germany have still been considerable for the Alyousefs.

Batoul was the first to obtain her professional license for Germany. Her fiancé Anas only arrived in the country six months ago, but even though he has only lived here a relatively short time, he already speaks fluent German and has passed the necessary examination to be allowed to work as a doctor.

Batoul is currently looking for a job in dermatology or internal medicine and is waiting for one of her applications to be accepted. In Damascus, she completed her studies with honors and even gained professional experience in Germany through several months of internships. "In Syria, it's only the grades that count for professional training," she says. "I could have easily chosen an area of focus." But she says the German system is different. If you want to work as an assistant doctor at a clinic, you have to apply. And it's not just grades that are decisive, but also the personal impression made. Batoul is hoping that the headscarf she wears won't put her at a disadvantage. She says the patients she's cared for so far have never had a problem with it.

She says she wouldn't let that get her down, anyway. "The main thing is to believe in yourself and the goal," she says. She also says she learned something important from her adviser at the University of Rostock: "Fear is not a good guide." Like her sisters, Batoul is receiving support from the Academic Integration Project for Syrian Refugees at the University of Rostock.

Recently, Batoul has been interning at the emergency department of the university hospital. "I want to bolster my resume," she says.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 42/2019 (October 11th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

Her younger sisters Yara, 20, and Heba, 22, are studying medicine in Hannover. Heba doesn't have access to any grants or student loans, so she now works night shifts at a hospital and monitors patients to finance her studies. Despite all the work she has to do on the side, she still manages to keep up her good grades. That also helped her land an offer from the university to work as a tutor and to teach other students.

Their mother Yusra spent many years as a gynecologist in Syria and Saudi Arabia. If she passes the language test at the beginning of next year, the next thing she wants to do is pass the specialist knowledge test so that she can obtain a license to work in Germany.

For Yusra, it feels almost like she's having to complete a full medical degree again. Daughter Batoul has two proverbs for her mother: "Practice makes perfect" and "there's no harm in asking."

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