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4/13/2018 1:42:25 PM

The Afghan cop who became a German nurse - and other refugee success stories

German initiatives are equipping new arrivals with the skills to alleviate the country’s worker shortage.

It’s breakfast time at a care home in Brandenburg and Zia Hayafi is busy. He is gently moving an elderly woman from her bed into a wheelchair. He should be hurrying – they are waiting for her in the dining room. But he takes his time, moving close to her ear to ask: “Did you sleep well?” She nods.

Hayafi with a patient.

Hayafi with a patient. Photograph: Annika Kiehn/Spiegel Online

“I like old people,” he says. “When I’m that old, I’m going to want someone nice around to look after me.”

Hayafi, 20, has been working here for three months. It is about as different as can be imagined from his former life as an officer in the Afghan police force. There, the big concern was the Taliban (Hayafi, an ethnic Hazara, eventually fled). Here, the concern is whether Germany will let him stay.

Supply and demand

It should give it serious thought. Germany faces skills gaps across its economy that will only widen as the population ages. But it has also welcomed more than 1 million refugees in little more than two years. Programmes have sprung up trying to solve the former with the latter, aided by laws that look more kindly on asylum seekers working, something that is in effect forbidden in France and the UK.

But although 400,000 German companies have employed asylum seekers in one form or another, the majority have been taken on under short-term arrangements such as internships and placements, which do not always have a happy ending.

According to statistics, every third trainee in Germany would have to opt for geriatric care at present to counteract the shortage of skilled workers. In fact, fewer than one in 10 do so. People like Hayafi should be a godsend. 

Hannah Hillebrand with trainees at the Refugee Canteen project in Hamburg.

 Hannah Hillebrand with trainees at the Refugee Canteen project in Hamburg. Photograph: Lucas Wahl/Kollektiv25

But it is not clear that he will even complete the training. His original asylum request was refused, as is increasingly common with Afghans in Europe. He could be deported at any time, but he is appealing against the decision. “I want to earn good money and buy a house,” he says.

About 150 miles (240km) west, Hannah Hillebrand is having a tough time with her trainees in the kitchen. Zabi has forgotten to put sugar in the dough, Hassan is peeling hot potatoes with his bare hands and Saeed is trying to fillet a fish with the wrong knife.

Hillebrand is a leader of the Refugee Canteen project in Hamburg, which gives newcomers 14 weeks of hands-on experience in its kitchen before securing them a six-week internship in a restaurant or cafe. She spent three months writing a training manual containing recipes and key facts about German cooking, but her six pupils cannot do much with it. The text is too long and the terminology is alien. She must start with the basics.

Most German businesses report positive experiences of hiring refugees, says Stephanie Anders, coordinator of refugee integration at the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. The companies have been pleased that the apprentices are keen to learn, Anders says, adding: “Many have been disappointed in recent years by German young people who have a school leaving [certificate] but come to work completely listless.”

But there are significant hurdles, as Hillebrand is experiencing. Aref is good at preparing potato salad, but when he is asked to get limes out of the fridge, he doesn’t move. He does not know what limes are, but he dare not admit it. “They look like green lemons,” says Hillebrand.

“I’m nervous because I’m worried that I won’t understand everything,” says Saeed, who is soon to undertake his six-week placement in a restaurant. Like many others here, he had never set foot in a kitchen before he came to Germany. In Afghanistan, it was his mother who cooked.

A proper apprenticeship is a holy grail for many young asylum seekers who want to stay longer in Germany. Under the “three plus two” arrangement introduced in August 2016, they are accorded two years of leave to remain after completing three years of training.

But fewer than 10% of Refugee Canteen graduates will advance to a full apprenticeship. Places on courses are scant and language remains a major barrier. So the kitchen walls are plastered with sticky notes bearing the German words for things such as “light switch”. That was the idea of the trainees, says Hillebrand, but it is not enough. Every trainee cook must know what a pomegranate or a fishbone is. Where should they learn this? Most German courses do not teach a technical language, and poor language skills are often cited as the reason for not giving refugees long-term positions.

Back to school

On the edge of Berlin, Basel Alsayed hands out worksheets to pupils at Am Pappelhain primary school. The sheets ask children to identify gender articles: der, die or das Blume? He doesn’t tell the pupils, but this is homework he himself was doing only weeks earlier. He hopes he won’t end up teaching the children things that are incorrect.

Basel Alsayed, pictured at Am Pappelhain primary school.

 Basel Alsayed, pictured at Am Pappelhain primary school. Photograph: Hendrik Lehmann/Hanna Gieffers

Alsayed is enrolled in the government-funded Refugee Teachers programme of Potsdam University, in which Syrian teachers spend 18 months doing a mixture of language courses, teacher training and work experience. This year there were more applicants than the 29 places available, and the funding is currently earmarked only until March 2019.

Alsayed is already proving his worth in the primary school, where one-third of pupils are originally from places such as Bosnia, Ghana, Palestine and Syria. “Basel is a firefighter – he helps wherever the need is,” says Gerald Schneider, the headteacher of Am Pappelhain.

“He translates when there are language problems with parents, fills in when teachers are ill. He is scarily tough. We use him for far more than we probably should.”

“I was thrown in at the deep end,” says Alsayed. He left behind Damascus, the school where he taught, his mother and other family to avoid being conscripted into the war in Syria. He headed initially for west Germany, but was resettled under a quota scheme in Zehdenick, north of Berlin.

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but this was his big break: the Potsdam scheme is not available in any other German region. Initially he was frustrated at having to study again: “Suddenly I was having to do my own homework instead of handing it out,” he says. His German is almost perfect, but now and then he mangles a declension or searches for a rare word, and when he says “p”, it sounds like “b”. Botsdam, he says.

The need for teachers like Alsayed is expected to grow. Projections indicate that in five years there will be almost 300,000 immigrant children in Germany’s schools. And the Bertelsmann Foundation forecasts a shortfall of about 35,000 primary school teachers by 2025.

The potential for a solution is there: in 2016, 11,000 of the people who claimed asylum were teachers. And of course, many of them will be better able to empathise with the thousands of bewildered Syrian children in Germany’s school system.

“I can’t explain to children who have come to Germany as refugees why it is that they are suddenly here,” Alsayed says. “But I think I know how they feel.”/.

  ( VNF/The Guardian )
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