Ambitious, educated refugees have a future in Germany (but not where people think)

Ambitious, educated refugees have a future in Germany (but not where people think)

As a woman of color who left Middle East black-market trade research for the world of eLearning in the mid-’90s, I’ve often found myself espousing the benefits of education, hard work, and adaptation — especially in the tech industry — to other recent immigrants in Germany. A year ago, I put my money where my mouth is and I founded FrauenLoop — a software-industry training and integration program which promotes the more-meritocratic nature of the tech industry to immigrant, refugee and EU-resident women, even as it acknowledges that tech companies are far from oases of equality. For immigrant students, the idea of proving competence to be given a chance in a foreign country isn’t surprising. What surprises my refugee students is that Germany does not yet seem to have a corporate-supported model for successful integration of ambitious, educated refugees — especially given the fact that they are often being pestered to join in recreational events, entrepreneurship lectures and integration workshops developed with zero asylum-seekers involved.

While well-intentioned programs have sprung up in Berlin to meet the needs of aspiring “refugee” artists, language-learners, yogis, and so on, ambitious immigrants in Germany are underserved. Some tell me that they never agree to be photographed at Berlin technology events, because right after they notice the distinct lack of diversity they understand that they are meant to be just that — the fig-leaf of diversity in an otherwise all-white, often all-male environment. The rush to offer asylum-seekers opportunities to “collaborate,” “co-create” and “network” in a wide variety of unpaid roles and projects is so frustrating that some of my refugee students have considered building a “Rentfugee” software app — in which one can specify the volume and appearance of the refugees one requires — for workshops, photo opportunities and so on. And then afterwards forget about them.

Few of us would choose to be used as the backdrop for someone else’s liberalism. Since it’s hard to understate the effect that being simultaneously disrespected and condescended to has on refugees. I’ll give a window to my own experience of something similar — my experience of living in Syria.

For six months in the 1990’s, I found myself in cultural and social isolation — this despite speaking fluent Arabic and doing everything I could to fit in. As a PhD researcher, I’d lived in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt before I got to Syria, so I thought I knew what to expect. My knowledge of the Middle East’s political realities didn’t lead me to guess that an educated black woman in Western clothes, speaking Egyptian-accented Arabic would provoke nervous glances and/or outright paranoia in Damascus. Why? Because, in Syria, I could only be understood to be a poor, undesirable African refugee or as a potentially dangerous (and equally undesirable) spy.

After just a few months, I was a chain-smoking mess, with my confidence at an all-time low. I found myself questioning my abilities, my intelligence, and at one point, even my sanity, for moving to a country where I had zero idea how to successfully integrate. Mostly shunned by the larger population, I was stuck navigating the city alone for lunches with Japanese or Russian women, in which we’d compare notes about the relentless stereotyping we had to face. Eating lunch at a local restaurants, I overheard jokes about “cleaning ladies moving up in pay” while being pointed to and laughed at — not to mention, one time, being literally spat on in the street. This was my experience in then-safe and stable capital city of Syria. I often think about these experiences now, when asylum-seekers tell me how difficult it is to convince German government workers that they had academic training, ambitions, and professional lives outside of Germany. Or when they explain that, for them, starting fresh in a new country means applying for junior-level professional jobs — not taking a security guard role, or office cleaning, or three-year-long apprenticeships (“Ausbildung”) designed for sixteen-year-old German school-leavers.

I think about my brief time in Syria when a former student who currently teaches women at FrauenLoop tells me; “I am afraid that I could stay for twenty years in this country and I will still be ‘the refugee.’”

Naturally, I know how unique Berlin is. I’m a girl from Brooklyn: I’ve seen it all. Gold chains, gold grillz, cornrows, bandannas, satin hotpants, Nation of Islam suits, Guardian Angels jackets, Jewish hasidim sitting next to you on the subway. But Berliners have seen it all, too: it’s why this city is bursting with new arrivals, and why the forty or so software professionals I’ve recruited over the past year to teach included barely a handful of native Germans.

Plenty of us “newcomers” to Germany share an inability to fit in. But Western tech workers and would-be tech workers from outside the West inhabit different worlds. Many of my tech volunteers speak poor-to-zero German: those seeking asylum spend an obligatory five days a week in German language classes, where they are told that their weak language skills entitle them only to menial jobs, if that. Most of my instructors employed in the technology sector scoff at putting a photo or a birth date onto their CVs. But all of my students from Yemen, Venezuela, Iraq, Syria or the Philippines are pressured to include this information on every resume, along with the expiration date of their residence documents — right at the top, under their names.

Organizations like FrauenLoop alone can’t break the structural barriers to refugee and immigrant success in Germany: most of us are not in a position to effect structural change. But we in the tech industry know that technology relies on talent and tenacity more than on national origin or on the clothes someone might wear. We know that we stand to gain more ideas and more global reach from more varied perspectives on our work. Building a global audience in tech requires global representation. That’s why FrauenLoop is partnering with German companies who are committed to tech inclusion: to reach a bigger audience, we are building a bigger table.

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