Integration Takes Time
It all started on the day I met with my friend Nada Georges. She told me she only had time for a quick cup of coffee – she had promised to help a new family of refugees adapt to life in Germany. “Do they have children?” I asked, something that always hit home with me. They did. “Do they need anything?” They did. They needed everything. So I quickly packed some household items and some toys and clothes for the children into Nada’s car. Being a journalist, of course, I had to add a magnetic board with small plastic letters as well, thinking it might help them learn the Latin letters.
The refugees were a Syrian family consisting of parents Hala Alede and Ibrahim Shalhoub and their two daughters Grace and Lea. In their home country, Hala was the principal of a French school in Damascus while Ibrahim was on the management executive for Syrian Air. Before the war, their days began with the journey to work. The grandmother looked after the children and cleaning staff took care of the house. Hairdresser, manicures, fitness studio – they had a good life. The Christian family was part of the privileged class. In Germany, however, their life looks quite different: they clean their three-room rented apartment themselves and had to scramble for the money to buy a small car. In return, they finally have peace. No bombs and no war.
First weeks in Germany
During the first six months after their move to Germany in spring 2013, Nada made sure to bring their eldest daughter everywhere with her. Grace was seven years old, a quiet girl that was fascinated by our guinea pigs. It was impossible to communicate yet, but Nada introduced her to her friends and brought Grace into contact with German children and the German culture as much as possible. Nada herself had to leave her home country Lebanon when she was young as well, so she knows how important active integration is, especially for children. “The children are our future. It is crucial that they adapt to the German culture as soon as possible,” she believes. Grace started school in Germany in the fall of 2013.
No place for war
When the Alede-Shalhoub family moved to Germany, Syria had already suffered two years of relentless terror. The country’s troubles seemed very far away from Europe at first, “somewhere in the South.” Terms like Balkan Route and Germany’s immigration quota solution didn’t even exist then. No one could have guessed how quickly these problems “in the South” would come so close to home.
To this day, I know surprisingly little about what the family went through during the war. All I learned is that during the two months before their departure, they were too scared to leave the house. Hala told me that every explosion reaffirmed their determination to leave. Her answers are always short – she doesn’t want to answer, and I no longer want to ask. They just want to forget the horror. The world our two families share now looks very different: they are striving for normality to replace the constant fear of a country at war.
Summer 2014 saw a strange mixture of families coming together: Two from Germany, one from Lebanon, and one from Syria. The German families had never lived anywhere else, the Lebanese one had lived in Germany for 30 years, and the Syrians about one year. The children played in the house or on the trampoline, while Ibrahim set up the shisha my husband and I had purchased at a Tunisian bazaar twenty years ago for the adults. We talk about food (a lot!), and about cars, phones, the children’s swimming classes, and learning German. We spoke in German, Arabic, or French as best we could. But we did not talk about war. War has no place in Germany.
Hala and Ibrahim studied for their German courses religiously. They are both perfectionists and completed the courses with top grades. Simultaneously, they are becoming more involved in the social life in their area: Hala has joined the choir and is part of the local exchange network. Whenever she can, she helps new refugees as a translator. They are eager to befriend German families and assimilate the culture, so they are often invited to dinners. Speaking German is becoming easier for both of them; Hala stands out especially with her talent for languages. But is this enough for them to be able to work in Germany? I proposed they should try doing an internship. That way, they could learn the language and gather work experience at the same time. I did an internship at SAP myself – though I had prior work experience – and it helped me earn my current spot at the company. That was sixteen years ago. “Where can I find a good job here?” Ibrahim asked. Well, there are some around, but they’re hard to secure in Germany.
Since then, Hala has sent out her first job applications. She is successfully giving students private lessons in French and teaching her first courses at the Volkshochschule. Unfortunately, this is not enough to support her whole family.
More and more refugees
2015 – another year later and refugees are streaming into Germany non-stop, and the German citizens are stepping up to help. Then the government shocked everyone by putting up border controls in late summer. At the same time, German companies started supporting refugees, as did SAP. Stefan Ries, SAP SE Executive Board member, announced that SAP would provide 100 internships specifically for refugees. It may not seem much in face of the masses, but it’s a start.
I immediately shared this information with Hala and Ibrahim. “Keep an eye on the SAP homepage,” I told them, “new jobs are opening up.” I am very proud of “our” company for going even another step further in helping refugees: They are giving ten refugees an opportunity to study at the Duale Hochschule Mannheim in partnership with them. They have instigated initiatives such as design thinking workshops with refugees. The employee support is overwhelming as well: In Austria alone, one sales colleague is coaching flag football for refugee children, and another colleague cooks meals with refugees and then caters them out. In addition to generous donations and active participation in the diverse projects, many SAP employees are helping overcome the refugee crisis through software development. As if this weren’t enough, SAP offers free German courses for volunteers who want to teach the refugees our language. You can register for these courses on SAP’s open online training platform OpenSAP. Many employees are helping out as German teachers there as well.
Now it’s 2016 and Hala is working as a freelance French teacher. Ibrahim is doing an internship at an architectural office. Her German has improved even more, and the couple has an integration head start compared to all the refugees who have been streaming in since last year. Yet they still can’t support their family alone. Something needed to change, and soon.
Finally, Hala called me in May: “Iris, I’ve got an internship at SAP!” she exclaimed. “Can you tell me something about your company?” I am so excited for her. Without intending to, I found myself gushing about SAP – so very un-German. I tell her what a great employer SAP is and how it’s one of the few actual global companies in Germany. How many cultures and nations are joined together in Walldorf and that she’ll be fine with her English. How we can drive to Walldorf together in the mornings and find a ride back for her in the afternoons with the TwoGo app.
Tomorrow is the big day: Hala will begin her internship in Walldorf. She says she’s very excited, and I’m just as excited as she is. My dear new colleague, I wish you all the best in your internship!