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When the Assad regime came to Mohamad Taha Al-salamah’s door with accusations of political dissent, the then 21-year-old Syrian had no choice but to drop his civil engineering studies behind and flee. By the time he claimed asylum in Germany three years later, he had been bounced around the world. Mr Al-Salamah had lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, trying to finish his studies and looking unsuccessfully for work.
Young and ambitious, he was eager to restart his career as soon as he settled in Berlin. “I wanted to work because I’d lost years from my life,” he says. His whole family were engineers and architects; he wanted to be like his father — a civil engineer with his own business.
Mr Al-salamah is just one of the 1.1m asylum-seekers who registered with German authorities last year. In theory, the country is in a good position to integrate newcomers. It is experiencing its lowest unemployment rate since reunification in 1990 and there are jobs to spare, particularly in the IT industry.
A survey by Bitkom, the trade association of the German IT industry, showed that 60 per cent of German companies in the sector suffered skills shortages in 2015. An EY survey published this year found the German SME sector had about 360,000 unfilled vacancies, amounting to an annual revenue loss of €46bn.
Although Germany needs more skilled workers, a recent report by the Federal Statistical Office indicates that Immigrants from Syria and Iraq have not yet benefited from growth in the labour market. Even skilled refugees with years of experience can feel locked out of opportunities by their limited German and the country’s bureaucracy.
Mr Al-salamah was lucky. A friend told him about Connecteer, one of the many refugee recruitment agencies operating out of Berlin. With its help, he secured a paid internship at the construction firm Samonig Berlin. The internship allows him to continue his German classes every morning.
“Without Connecteer, I would not be in this situation,” he says. “I speak to friends who are living in the refugee camps and they are really bored because they just go to German classes for three hours each day.”
Although German lessons are available free to refugees, many are still struggling with the language.
Berlin-based Zeeshan Rizvi arrived in February last year, having fled sectarian violence in Pakistan. He has seven years’ experience in marketing back home in Pakistan but after six months of searching, he has yet to find work.
“If I want to find a job related to my field then I should speak German because my work depends on language,” he says. “It’s not easy [to find a job in marketing] so now I am looking for any kind of work.”
For refugees with good English, Berlin’s tech and creative industries can offer opportunities that do not require German. Companies that cater to an international market often have English-speaking offices.
With employees from more than 40 nations, social games developer Wooga operates in English at its Berlin headquarters. Founder and chief executive Jens Begemann says his team are assessing where refugees can fit into the Wooga workforce.
“We are currently identifying projects that are suitable for six-week internships for refugees who are interested in joining the games industry and possibly already have skills in this field,” he says. “The main requirements are that they have a passion for games and speak English,” says Mr Begemann. Wooga is also looking for refugee candidates for its year-long design traineeship programme.
“The creative industries need less German than someone who wants to be a secretary, for example,” says Helen Hasse, communications manager at Connecteer. “But you want refugees to be integrated in German teams,” she adds. “Employment is one of the most important pillars of integration. In the workplace, refugees can improve their language, tap into the culture while becoming financially independent.”
Originally from Aleppo, software developer Muhannad Fakhouri believes it is possible to find a job in the tech industry without fluent German. Now he can speak the language well but even when he first arrived, he was offered a part-time job as a web developer.
Mr Fakhouri worries about red tape, not language. “I’ve been waiting one year and three months for permission to work, everything is slow here. I was expecting it to go a little bit faster.”
When refugees face legal difficulties or a long wait for permission to work, they are more inclined to seek employment in the “shadow economy” where wages are low, conditions unregulated and employers unlikely to pay insurance.
One Syrian refugee, who asks not to be named, says during his first few months in Berlin he took a job working as a barman for his cousin, who paid him in cash. “In those days, I was taking only €140 per month from the government and I needed money,” he says.
While some companies are keen to hire refugees out of economic necessity or because they want to help, recruiters say the legal aspect of hiring refugees concerns others. Robert Barr, co-founder of Jobs4Refugees, which matches people living in camps to relevant employers, believes the bureaucratic processes in Germany are “definitely too complicated”. He says: “The sheer amount of paperwork and the complexity of it is even difficult for Germans to understand.”
Mr Barr helps refugees with the legal challenges of applying for jobs while they are still in the process of claiming asylum, a process that can take up to 8 weeks. But his job is set to get easier. In April, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that a law requiring employers to give preference to German or EU job applicants over asylum seekers could be suspended for three years.
While it might get easier, legally, for refugees to find work, Mr Barr worries changing public opinion may present fresh obstacles. “There is a concern the welcoming sentiment that is still around in Germany might move towards the right.”