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IMMIGRATION

‘I’d do it again’: Refugees reflect on their journey to Germany five years on

German Gracia Schuette and Syrian Aeham Ahmad both had their lives changed forever by Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to leave Germany's doors open to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

'I'd do it again': Refugees reflect on their journey to Germany five years on
Syrian pianist Aeham Ahmad while still living in a hostel in 2016. Photo: Daniel Roland/AFP
In August of that year, Schuette joined thousands of volunteers serving ladles of hot soup to exhausted migrant families arriving at Munich's main train station.
   
Having been held in Hungary after travelling the length of Europe, trains overflowing with refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan had begun arriving at the station in a seemingly endless convoy.
   
Ahmad was a passenger on one of them. The Syrian pianist with Palestinian roots arrived in Munich on September 23.
   
A month earlier, he had left Yarmouk, a sprawling neighbourhood in the south of Damascus, after swathes of the area were occupied by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.
   
He left behind his wife and two boys, still too young to embark on such a perilous journey.
   
Now 32, Ahmad has built a career for himself that involves travelling all over Europe and as far afield as Japan to give concerts.
   
At the station in Munich, where the volunteers once served hot soup, a Covid-19 test centre now stands.
 
READ ALSO: 
 
 
Gracia Schuette stands at the main train station in Munich, the arrival place of many refugees in 2015. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP
 
'Gratitude'
 
Schuette, 36, says the experience changed her attitude to life and taught her “gratitude and the awareness that despite everything that happens in Germany, it is still a very safe country”.
   
Ahmad speaks to AFP from a train heading to the north of Germany, where he is due to give a concert.
   
He remembers his first days in Germany as a time of great confusion. Like tens of thousands of other Syrians arriving in the country, he had only one word on his lips: “Alemania!” — Germany.
   
“After I arrived in Munich, I was sent to several emergency reception centres and then to Wiesbaden” near Frankfurt, where he and his uncle were given a room in a hostel, he says in a mixture of English and German.
   
He remembers the “extreme kindness” shown by volunteers like Schuette — “that community of people who said, 'We have to help'”.
   
For Schuette, it was important to feel that she was “not just a spectator” watching events unfold but willing to “act decisively” by helping to distribute basic necessities or set up camp beds.
   
Today, she works as an administrator for a kindergarten. But she has maintained her commitment to helping refugees — so much so that she has even taken three young people into her home, one of whom still lives with her.
   
Having been granted refugee status a year after his arrival in Germany, Ahmad was joined by his wife and children.
   
The family have since moved to Warburg, a town in northwestern Germany, and seven months ago welcomed a new baby girl.
   
While still in Syria, Ahmad had made a name for himself on social media with videos of songs performed amid the ruins of his ravaged home country.
 
 
'No accent'
 
In Germany, he began to sing songs about homesickness, with the aim of raising awareness in his new country and the rest of Europe of “this stupid war” that has devastated Syria for more than nine years.
   
Today, he aspires to “bring cultures together, to create a dialogue between Eastern and Western music”.
   
Having given more than 720 concerts, he has at times felt exhausted. But “anything is better than living off state subsidies” as he did during his first months in Germany, he believes.
   
If Schuette could go back and do it all again, she would.
   
“I don't think I would be someone who just says, 'It's going to work out and everything's going to be great.' You have to be realistic,” she said, pointing to the difficulties of integration. “But there's no doubt about it: I'd do it again.”
   
Ahmad, too, avoids painting a rose-tinted picture of his story. His generation, he says, will be scarred for life by the horrors of war and the  difficulties of adapting to life in exile.
   
But there is pride in his voice as he reveals that his two sons already speak German “without the slightest accent”.

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IMMIGRATION

What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

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