Five years after more than half a million Syrians arrived in Germany as refugees, many are taking different academic and career paths from the ones they had chosen in Syria.
In the absence of pressures they felt before, from families or high school grades, and with generous government financial support, many Syrians who had been away from school for years are back in classrooms studying new fields that have brighter employment prospects and about which they are truly passionate. They are finding career changes are easier in their new country than they were back in Syria.
Going back to school at age 28 as an undergraduate was not a problem for Shadi Kiwan. With his training as a lab assistant in Damascus and four years’ experience, Kiwan could have gotten his qualifications recognized in Germany. But he wanted to start over in a career he always loved but wasn’t able to take in Syria. He is now in the third semester studying computer science.
“I didn’t like working in a lab, but I had chosen it in Syria because of my high school exam grades,” Kiwan said.
In Syria, scores on the high school exit exam known as the baccalaureate determine what students can study in the public universities. Applicants with grades below 85 percent have almost no chance of getting admitted to engineering or medical faculties.
But in Germany, even with a baccalaureate grade of around 65 percent, Kiwan was able to secure a place at Magdeburg University by completing a government-funded preparatory college course. For a year, he took classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry, German and an introduction to computer science.
Refugee students in Germany are entitled to the same benefits that Germans have, including almost-free education or training and unemployment welfare benefits.
“I heard many comments that I was too old to go back to study, but I didn’t feel the pressure,” he said. “I also had higher salary prospects in mind, so it wasn’t just about doing what I loved.”
A 2019 survey found that 58 percent of refugee university students in Germany were 25 or older. The survey showed that three out of four refugee applicants secured a spot at a university or applied science college, with admission rates higher among Syrians. A school-completion certificate from Syria with an average score of 70 percent or higher usually enabled direct university access, the survey found. That was not the case for the credentials of many other countries. (See a related article, “Majority of Refugees in Germany Aspiring to Higher Education Have Been Admitted.”)
No Family Pressure
Refugees are also free of another constraint they felt back home: family pressure. Deciding a study or a career path for high school graduates in Syria is often a family matter. Parents try to push their children into certain fields and 18-year-olds often yield to their advice.
When Muhannad Alkanakri was applying for universities in Damascus almost ten years ago, his parents pressured him to study law instead of his preference, business. He was a third-year student when he left for Turkey as a refugee.
He couldn’t afford to study in Turkey, where he had to work to support himself. But when he arrived in Germany in 2015, returning to his original interest was the first thing he thought about. “Since my first moment in Germany, I knew I wanted to study this field. Because I love it, it isn’t that difficult for me,” he said. He is now a second-year business administration student at a university near the city of Frankfurt.
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Refugee students in Germany are entitled to the same benefits that Germans have, including almost-free education or training and unemployment welfare benefits. Having financial support during language learning and university study has paved the way for thousands of refugees to enter German higher education.
Mohamad Karaf, 36, is an economics graduate from Damascus who is now completing vocational training to become a youth caregiver and educator.
Before enrolling in school, he was entitled to welfare benefits and free German-language courses. As a student, he now receives aid called “BAföG,” the German abbreviation for a federally supported package of grants and interest-free loans.
“To have such opportunity to start at this age in any field—we didn’t see such support anywhere else,” he said.
More than 20,000 Syrian students received BAföG support in 2019, according to the annual statistics of Germany’s Federal Statistical Office.
Martin Kleinemas, a spokesman for the German Ministry of Education and Research said students who start new education or training path can be exceptionally funded if they have an important or irrefutable reason for the study field switch.
The age limit of 30 for receiving BAföG can be exceptionally overlooked if the student is a refugee and needs additional training in Germany for the recognition of his/her professional qualification, if this professional qualification cannot be used in Germany, Kleinemas said.
The Language Challenge
While getting admitted to a university and securing financial support tend not to be major challenges for most Syrian applicants, studying in a foreign language and navigating the German higher education system are. (See a related article, “Germany Struggles to Integrate 1 Million Refugees.”)
Foreign students must prove German-language proficiency as a prerequisite for university admission. However, passing the standardized test doesn’t guarantee they will understand lectures.
“The language was a struggle in every sense of the word,” Karaf said. Understanding the technical language for each module was the biggest challenge, requiring him to spend extra hours studying every day.
More than 60 percent of refugee students in Germany listed understanding their fields’ technical language as a problem, a 2019 survey of 7,000 refugee students found.
Katharina Kube, a student counselor at the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin), said the self-reliant and independent learning style of German higher education presents a special challenge for students from other academic backgrounds. Students must arrange their class schedules and design their own study plan.
Zuca Souda, 26, a business informatics student at Nuremberg University, said there was a huge gap between German and Syrian teaching. “Around 80 percent of what I study, I learn on my own, whether from textbooks, YouTube or online courses,” she said. “You cannot just depend on what the professor gives you in lectures.”
There were 1.2 million unfilled jobs in Germany in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Training and hiring refugees helped fill those vacancies.
Souda was an economics student in Aleppo before she fled to Germany five years ago. She wanted to study bio-chemical engineering and was admitted at Erlangen University, but found the field too challenging, so she switched to business informatics instead.
Filling Employment Needs
There were 1.2 million unfilled jobs in Germany in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Training and hiring refugees helped fill those vacancies. Around 49 percent of refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 are now employed, according to the Institute for Employment Research. (See a related article, “German Apprenticeships Get Refugees Back to Work.”)
Government employment offices coordinate with higher education institutes to encourage unemployed refugees to study fields with higher employment prospects.
Refugee students are also prompted to get personal counseling at the colleges where they wish to study, said Martin Knechtges, a spokesman for uni-assist, an association that evaluates international students’ applications for more than 170 higher education institutes in Germany. This helps them gain better knowledge of a field before officially applying.
Whether they plan to stay in Germany or return to their home countries also plays a role in students’ decisions of whether to start a new field, said Abdallah Haouchar, a student counselor at TU Berlin. Five years ago, the majority wanted to continue in their previous field, Haouchar said. People “felt that they had to do something quickly, they had to get a degree as fast as possible,” he said.
But the situation is changing. In 2019, a survey found that 77 percent of refugee students in Germany thought returning to their home countries was “unlikely” or “very unlikely.” That’s nearly a reversal of the situation in 2016, when around 80 percent were thinking of returning to Syria at some point, says Haouchar.
“Is the degree from TU Berlin recognized in Syria?” was a common question then, Haouchar said. “Now, maybe during one in 10 conversations I get that question.”
But for Modar Aldebiat, a 28-year-old from Salamiyah, in western Syria, the prospect of returning home was one of the reasons he opted for a career switch. Formerly a veterinary medicine student, he decided to start a vocational training in occupational therapy so he could help rehabilitate war victims in Syria.
“We don’t have this therapy in Syria, and we have many war-injured,” Aldebiat said. “Some come to the clinic here and can’t speak German. I feel great that I can communicate with them in their native language.”