It’s a warm weekday evening in Berlin when I meet Kalthoum, 53, in the community centre where she takes part in a weekly women’s group of mostly Syrian women. The first thing she does is apologise for her German. She says language has proven the biggest obstacle to setting up a new life here in Germany since arriving from Syria in 2015. In the old people’s home where she works, the strong accents and conversations that stray outside of familiar subjects often leave her feeling lost.
It’s been hard work to get where she is today. Since arriving four years ago, Kalthoum has taken German lessons up to an intermediate level, worked at a plumbing and heating company, taken training courses in caregiving, volunteered and taken a traineeship in the old people’s home where she now has a permanent contract. Her days are busy, but mostly enjoyable. “I go walking with people, play games, chat with them, wash them and feed them,” she says. “I do everything.”
Her journey since arriving is undoubtedly testament to personal determination and hard work, but it could also be held up as a successful example of Germany’s integration policies. In 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced an open door policy and the country was held up as a paragon of humanitarianism in Europe when it took in over a million refugees — mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. Germany had the highest number of first-time asylum applications in Europe in 2015, with 35.2% of the total. To put it into perspective, the UK’s share was 3.1% that year. Since then, it has rolled out support in the form of free language and integration courses, access to traineeships and numerous civil society support groups.
But not all new arrivals are finding their way into decent work. A study in June 2019 from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development showed that, although a third of all refugees that arrived in 2013–16 had found a job, the quality of the jobs was concerning. Most of the refugees working in 2018 were in temporary employment where low wages
and insecurity are common.
This vulnerability to unstable employment is not restricted to Germany. “There is a good amount of evidence that many refugee men and women are working informally [around the world],” says Jeni Klugman, chief economist at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “This means they get much-needed cash but lack the job protections and security of decent work.”
A 2019 report from the IRC illuminated a pay gap in Germany, with refugee women and men earning an average hourly pay of 10.67 euros and 12.92 euros respectively compared with 17.09 euros and 21.60 euros for their local counterparts. Globally, if gender pay gaps and barriers to work were removed for refugee men and women, it would contribute $2.5tn to annual GDP.
The same study from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development argued that there are both personal and institutional challenges to refugee employment in Germany. “It’s important to recognise that refugees have more challenges than other migrants as they come from war and forced displacement,” says Frederick Sixtus, one of the researchers on the report, speaking of individual hurdles.
“That means they didn’t have a chance to prepare for their life here. When they arrive they are often lacking in the German language, knowledge of how the employment market works and contacts. Not to mention after experiencing war and their difficult journeys, they often have psychological issues and trauma to deal with.” Despite available support, he says, many lack access to the necessary information to establish themselves in their new home.
When they do attempt to find a job, they immediately come face to face with a complex and often overwhelming bureaucracy. Firstly, the report states, too many different departments are involved in the process and secondly,
the legal situation is too complex and restrictive. Sixtus believes this has amounted to a situation that is unnecessarily difficult to navigate.
Sixtus’ study also highlights the impact of a complicated and inflexible process for recognising qualifications and work experience. Often the process of recognition can take a long time, and not everyone fleeing their country of origin will have brought the necessary paperwork to prove their education and employment history.
“Many take jobs they are overqualified for because they want to stand on their own legs, away from the job centre,” says Sixtus. “So they are often in unstable jobs, like in catering or cleaning.”
A study at the end of last year from Minor, a German organisation for civic education and research, interviewed a diverse group of 34 refugee women in Germany about their experiences of trying to find a job. Many had worked as teachers in their home countries but saw it as unlikely they could re-enter the profession in Germany, due to the demands for qualifying. Although the regulations differ from state to state in Germany, lldikó Pallmann, researcher on the report, says in most it is almost impossible to become a teacher especially if you aren’t from an EU country and don’t have a fluent level of German.
“Among the highly qualified women we spoke to, they were often very frustrated,” says Pallmann. “They told us, ‘I’ve worked for 15 years as an engineer and I don’t want to start working helping older people or cleaning offices’. They felt they weren’t given enough advice about the job market, and that nobody was interested in the skills they brought with them.”
“Germany was held up as a paragon of humanitarianism in Europe; it has rolled out support in the form of free language and integration courses, access to traineeships and numerous civil society support groups.”
Working in jobs for which people are overqualified is common, says Saloua Nyazy, 55, who arrived in Berlin in 2016. “I know a young man who studied IT in Syria who is now working as a cleaner because it takes time for his qualifications to be recognised, sometimes more than a year, and he wants to be financially independent. I know another who studied as an engineer in Syria and now works in a food kiosk.”
The IRC report focused in particular on the employment statistics for female refugees, using the case studies of Germany, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Uganda and the US. It revealed Germany, alongside Jordan and Lebanon, to have the lowest employment rates for female refugees of the six countries, at just 6% compared with 53.5% of local women and 63.8% of local men.
Many of the women interviewed in Pallmann’s study spoke of the difficulty of finding available places at kindergartens. Although finding a place is challenging for most parents in Germany, it was all the more difficult
for these women who didn’t know the language and the system well.
The limitations of language tuition were also felt keenly by women. “The courses go up to intermediate level but that is not fluent enough for a job,” says Pallmann. “It is not easy to find classes that go up to the higher levels.” She also saw that older women and those who hadn’t worked before found it especially hard. “The German system is not very open to those who start work later. Employers aren’t usually keen to take a chance on them.”
Nyazy, who now works in social care, believes that a lack of support for certain groups of women is holding them back more than men. “In the case of Syrians, there are some women who lived in smaller villages where there wasn’t access to good schools, and who didn’t get the opportunity to learn how to even read or write in Arabic,” says Nyazy. “That means when they get here and need to learn German and find a job, it is extremely hard. There are classes available to help them with this, but I think there needs to be even more support.”
Ashiqullah Safi, 34, originally from Afghanistan and currently waiting for a decision on his asylum application in Germany, has also seen Afghan women struggle with the jump. “Many of them were only able to get a few years of schooling [in Afghanistan], and so when they are here and faced with looking after their children, learning a new language and finding a job at the same time, it is too much.” On top of that, he says, the education systems and approaches to learning are so different it can be hard to adjust.
Although Safi has passed an advanced level exam for German and was already multilingual, he has still found the language tough on his biochemistry traineeship. “The language makes it hard for me,” he says. “Although I usually understand everything, everyone else is German on my course and sometimes not open to helping me if I need extra explanation. I feel alone sometimes, and it can make you lose motivation.”
Safi has been in Germany since 2015, but like many Afghans in the country he lives with uncertainty hanging over him. In comparison with people coming from countries such as Syria and Eritrea, those from Afghanistan are classed as having a poorer chance of being granted refugee status and permission to stay in Germany. Iehab Fattouh, 31, who has been in Germany since 2016 after he left Syria and is now training in IT, has seen the impact this insecurity has had on those applying for asylum in the country.
“Some people put a lot of effort into building a future here, but many of the refugees don’t have this security, so they think, ‘why should I invest in things here if I am going to get deported in two or three years?’” says Fattouh. “One of my friends is like this. He has sat the B1 [intermediate] German exam three times. He feels like even if he passes it he won’t be able to build a future here.”
Being granted family reunification with those still in home countries also plays a role, as the process is often lengthy and uncertain. “If their families are in Syria, or somewhere else where there is war and people don’t know when they will see them again, then it’s hard to concentrate and learn a new language and look for jobs,” says Sixtus.
However, in Nyazy’s view, the biggest hurdle for many refugee women isn’t bureaucracy or language learning. “One of the most important issues is the challenge of wearing a headscarf in the workplace,” says Nyazy. “I know women who have had an extremely difficult time finding a job even though they are highly qualified. When they apply with their documents everything
is okay, but as soon as there is a face-to-face interview, they don’t get the job.” In the case of teachers, the right for women to wear headscarves in the classroom has been a heated source of debate in Germany over the last few years.
Although all her colleagues have been very friendly, Kalthoum has also had some uncomfortable moments: “Sometimes during break times, I’ve heard colleagues laughing about foreigners and how they speak. And that makes me feel hopeless.”
In addition to tackling discrimination, Pallmann believes reductive stereotypes of refugees and refugee women need to be challenged so they reflect the many different types of backgrounds they have and the skills they bring: “The discussion in Germany about refugee women is usually always about women with no qualifications or experience but a lot of children, and a husband who doesn’t allow them to work.”
“Sometimes during break times, I’ve heard colleagues laughing about foreigners and how they speak. And that makes me feel hopeless.”
One of the biggest surprises Pallmann had while interviewing the women for the Monitor report was that, despite the frustrations, they hadn’t given up hope: “There are a lot of women both with and without children, with a lot of experience or none, and they are highly motivated and they want to have a chance.” Klugman emphasised it was important not to generalise on this topic: there is great diversity in employment experiences — from person to person and country to country — and not all are negative.
Back in the community centre, it’s clear Kalthoum has been modest about her German — she barely uses the assistance of the Arabic translator beside her. She wants to move forward and improve her experience at work. She’s planning on finding a German conversation class to advance her speaking. She’s here in Germany as the single parent of three daughters. All of them are now in university: one studying law, one art and one media. What do they want to do in the future? She laughs: “Work”.