A Day at the Fair — A Syrian’s Journey to Employment in Germany

Yermi Brenner
Feb 21 · 9 min read
180 companies, business associations, educational institutions and civil society organizations had stands in the job fair for refugees at Estrel Hotel (credit: Yermi Brenner)

The job fair for refugees and migrants that took place January 28 in Berlin was a very important day for Hassan Al Hashem, a Syrian who fled to Germany three years ago and is currently unemployed.

Hassan owned and worked in an Aleppo jewelry store for 15 years — “living in abundance,” he said — until the Syrian war took everything away, including his life savings. ”When the war began I had to leave my city; at first to another city, and then several years later I had to leave my home country,” Hassan told me three days before the job fair.

He arrived in Germany at the end of 2015, lived two years and five months in refugee accommodation facilities, and in the past 7 months has been renting a room in the home of a German family home on the outskirts of Berlin. He has been devoting most of his time to studying German, and he craves to find a stable source of income. “I need the feeling that I am independent, that I am standing with my feet on the ground, not just sitting here and receiving money from [German authorities],” he said.

Hassan Al Hashem at the job fair in Estrel Hotel (credit: Yermi Brenner)

On the day of the job fair, I met the 39-year old Hassan outside the Estrel Hotel, which hosted this event for the fourth consecutive year. He was clean shaved, dressed in a casual grey sweater and dark jeans, and seemed excited as we waited in the long line to enter. The people around us were chatting in Arabic, Kurdish, and Farsi; some had clearly dressed up for the event. About 3800 refugees and migrants took part in the fair, which was organized by Germany’s Federal Employment Agency and the Berlin Employment Agency.

Events like this job fair are part the German government’s efforts to tackle two major challenges it is currently facing: successfully integrating nearly a million refugees, and filling the estimated 1.6 million vacancies available in specific sectors of the local labor market like health care, tourism, logistics and construction. From the German government’s perspective, guiding refugees like Hassan into jobs in these specific sectors is a win-win solution.

Over the past three years, German authorities at all levels — federal, state, city and local governments — have been implementing various measures to integrate refugees in the labor market. Full labor market integration of refugees is still a long way off — roughly 456,000 refugees in Germany are registered as jobseekers — but the investment of the German authorities has begun to bear fruit. Employment of refugees is growing. As of October 2018, the employment rate for working age people that came to Germany from the eight main refugee-producing countries was 35 percent, up from 28 percent in the middle of 2018 and 16 percent in the middle of 2017.

Hassan began his search for work in the German labor market as soon as he was legally permitted in order to send money back home to his wife, son and mother. His family had stayed in Syria because the journey to Germany — by foot, bus, boat and train, across Turkey, the Mediterranean Sea, Greece, and the Balkans — was too dangerous and expensive. The family has been not been together since Hassan left, but they communicate everyday. “My son is seven years old now and I haven’t seen him in three years,” Hassan told me. “Whenever I speak to him on the phone, afterwards I will be very sad, because I miss him.“

The negative impact of family separation on refugee integration has been well documented in different host countries worldwide. People with refugee protection are entitled to family reunification, but to Hassan (and to about 140,000 Syrians total) German authorities granted lower form of protection known as subsidiary protection; and family reunification visas are severally restricted and for people with subsidiary protection. In August last year Hassan applied for family reunification visa for his wife and son. He has no idea when these visas will be granted, and it is out of his control. “This is madness,” Hassan said about his family situation.

Returning to Syria is too dangerous — “two of my brothers [in Syria] have been in hiding for four years now,” he said — so Hassan is trying to make the most of his time in Germany. One year ago he landed his first German job, as a salesperson in a leather goods shop at the center of Berlin. He started there as an intern for a month, and then was hired. He said his six-month stint as a salesperson was useful because it taught him “how to deal with customers here in Germany, and with Germans.” But he stopped working in the leather shop to focus on learning German properly. To this year’s job fair, Hassan came directly from his 5-day-a-week German language school.

When we entered the Estrel Hotel, we agreed that I would follow him from a distance as he strolled through and searched for work opportunities. The fair was held in two large convention halls — the size of 1.5 football fields — in which there were stands of 180 different companies, business associations, educational institutions and civil society organizations. Each of the stands was manned by two or three (or more) representatives that were smiley and welcoming and eager to recruit. Amazon’s stall advertised delivery and packaging jobs; Deutsche Bahn (Germany’s public railway company) is seeking technicians, metal workers and call center agents; McDonalds wants service staff; and Deutsche Post is in desperate need of delivery people.

Amazon’s stall was one of the most popular ones at the job fair (credit: Yermi Brenner)

The number of available jobs in the German labor market has been growing — the longest job boom in more than half a century according to German government-owned development bank KfW. The job fair in Berlin is the biggest refugee recruitment event in the whole of Europe, according to Nicole Scharngal-Kleber, a spokesperson for the German Federal Employment Agency.

Scharngal-Kleber said language is still the main obstacle limiting access of refugees to the German labor market. There has been progress: the number of refugees who reported having good or very good German language skills nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017. But the same survey revealed that — despite the availability of free language courses for refugees — only about 31 percent speak “very good” or “good” German.

The spokesperson noted that aside from language skills there are other obstacles to refugee employment, such as the complex nature of German bureaucracy. She noted that for refugees who are parents the first big challenge before searching for a job is placing kids in kindergartens and schools. ”These are the obstacles you have to fight when you are a newcomer here,” Scharngal-Kleber told me at the fair.

About 3800 refugees came to the job fair to explore employment opportunities (credit: Estrel Berlin / Hannibal Hanschke)

While some of the younger refugees in the fair seemed hesitant as they interacted with potential employers, Hassan was confident throughout. He patiently walked from stand to stand, asked a lot of questions, and collected plenty of brochures, flyers and business cards. He took particular interest in vocational training opportunities; enquiring with relevant companies and organizations about courses to become a preschool teacher or a social worker, as well as training for paramedics. He told me after the fair that he thinks these are good opportunities for him because the training courses are usually short — up to six months. “Afterwards you can start work immediately and earn relative good money,” he said.

Hassan’s approach of seeking training opportunities — as oppose to only looking for jobs — is the right one, according to Frank Hörl, the General Manager of Azure Hotels, a chain which operates a Holiday Inn franchisee in Alexanderplatz, at the center of Berlin. Hörl was Azure’s representative at the fair. His goal was to recruit refugees who would be trained and eventually hired as cooks, service people, and clerks. His main message to the refugees was that in Germany making use of training opportunities is essential for employment. “I always tell them, you should have something on your records which proves that you have done an apprenticeship,” Hörl told me. “To have a certificate in your hands is so important.”

Hassan Al Hashem, in the grey shirt, at the job fair for refugees (credit: Yermi Brenner)

Hassan’s interest in doing a paramedic training course is an ideal result for Germany because health care is one of the sectors in which shortage of workers is most significant. (Mainly as a result of German population aging.) In 2017 the German government announced there were 23,000 vacancies in elderly care and 12,000 vacancies in sick care. Earlier this year, on January 14, there was job fair in Berlin focusing specifically on the health sector: about 1450 refugees attended that fair.

In the January 28 fair, the company that operates the public hospitals in Berlin, Vivantes, had several representatives, including Safaa Abo Zaken, a 31-year Syrian, who has been living in Germany since 2013. Back in her home country Safaa studied law. Here she is pursuing a different direction. “I am doing a nursing course at Vivantes. I started this course in May. Next February it is finished,” Safaa said in fluent German, standing beside the Vivantes stall. She was wearing a white nurse outfit and a yellow-mustard veil. “After that,” she added. “I will hopefully become a nurse, Inshallah.”

Safaa Abo Zaken introducing job opportunities in Vivantes to two refugees (credit: Yermi Brenner)

Safaa’s role at the fair was to explain in Arabic to refugees who don’t understand German about the professional training opportunities and earning potential at Vivantes. Another fair stall that bypassed the language barrier was that of ReDI School, a non-profit social enterprise offering tuition-free courses in coding and other digital skills — in English or with translation to Arabic, Farsi and Tigrinya. ReDI gives refugees the opportunity to gain skills that are on demand in Germany’s Information Technology sector, where there are about 315,000 jobs available.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to find an IT job here,” Manuel Laudam, a program manager at ReDI and the school’s representative, told me at the fair. “Sometimes it is enough if you have basic computer skills and the right certificate.”

Health care is one of the sectors in which shortage of workers is most significant (credit: Estrel Berlin / Hannibal Hanschke)

He said that in the 2018 fair ReDI recruited more than 100 people for their courses, and that about 80 percent of the school’s graduates are now employed, doing internships or studying at university. As a result of the work of ReDI and other similar initiatives, refugees are increasingly landing IT jobs: the number of refugees from Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria working in the technical professions grew from 8,000 in the third quarter of 2016 to almost 16,400 a year later. The ReDI stall at the fair attracted a lot of attention, particularly from job seekers from the 20 to 30 years old age group. The 39-year old Hassan stopped only briefly at the ReDI stand, and then continued towards other opportunities.

After two hours strolling in the fair and countless conversations with different representatives, Hassan seemed exhausted and excited. “When all companies gather together at one place then of course you have better chances to discover something,” he said outside the fair, while rolling a hard-earned tobacco cigarette. “I got very good information.“

“At home today I will read all the [brochures and fliers] I have collected,” he added. He promised to keep me updated on his job search and on his efforts to reunite his family in Berlin.

Yermi Brenner

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I write feature articles on refugee integration in Europe, data-based analysis on migration trends worldwide, and personal essays on my migration experience.