The difficult path into the job market

Friederike and Leyla got to know each other in a partnership project and have since become friends. In the second part of this short series, the author follows Leyla’s path into the German job market and describes how important this step is for settling into a new country.

von Friederike Aps

Illustration: Claudia Klein

Leyla has two interviews for a surgical assistant traineeship. Our WhatsApp chat is full of smileys and hearts. She is smiling enthusiastically and nervously when she opens the door to me, as always with a kiss on the right cheek, another on the left, and I wave a slip of paper in my hand that’s covered in possible interview questions that I scribbled down at work. “This will be the most important day of my life,” she says, referring not to her birthday the following day but to her first interview next week. We practise the questions over coffee, which is way too sweet. She looks confused when we get to hobbies. “Can I say that I’ve had no time for hobbies since the war?”, she asks laughing, and I laugh then too. Leyla is sitting opposite me with her hair down. I’m always amazed by the change in her face when she isn’t wearing a hijab. Someone knocks at the door. It’s her neighbour, a young boy. Leyla puts a scarf on her hair and opens the door. Her father rolls his eyes and mutters quietly, “ … it’s only a young boy.” It isn’t just a matter of her not wanting to show herself with her hair down in front of a young boy, however, but also one of preserving a last bit of privacy in a living environment where privacy doesn’t exist anymore.
Leyla has been sharing the room with her father for more than two years now. Her German is better than his; she knows what’s what. He sits on his bed and busies himself in some way, or brings me fruit, homemade crepes, bread pizzas and small cakes. He shows me photos from his time as a chef. Leyla says something in Arabic and I smile, as I always do when they talk in their native language in front of me. She looks at me and says, “Sorry, but I have to for a minute.” She then sits down with me again.
She has had pains here and there recently but I’m the only one she tells. She wants to be strong, solid as a rock. It makes her seem almost superhuman. This worries me, but I simply continue listening to her.
Leyla is young and intelligent, has a university entrance diploma and was already an undergraduate at home. She speaks Arabic, English, Turkish and German. She has a three-year residence permit. All her diplomas have been translated and certified and she has B2 and C1 German-language certificates. Nonetheless, it was almost impossible for her to get an internship a few weeks ago, even though she needed one urgently to be able to apply for a traineeship in the first place. She was ready to go back home to Syria, to her mother and her closest friends. It’s been two years since she saw them last.
Leyla outlined her problems in a Facebook forum for female refugees. As luck would have it, someone there knew of a co-operative doctor through friends of friends and she got an internship. She beamed. There was light at the end of the tunnel. She was human again. She told me excitedly about the operating theatres and the devices, the gloves in different colours and sizes. The level at which she was speaking corresponded to the same excitement that native speakers would have. I listened and for once didn’t have to say anything empty like, “It’ll happen.” It was a brief moment of ease.
But the light at the end of the tunnel disappeared again. At work, Leyla was secretly suspected of having stolen a mobile phone. The phone was gone and suddenly no one was talking to her. When it turned up again, they all acted as if nothing had happened. Leyla’s last days at the hospital were agony for her.
A friend of hers experienced an even worse situation. She too had started an internship at a hospital but couldn’t get to work one day because the public transport system had come to a standstill. She called in and the nurse promised to tell the senior doctor. But this didn’t happen and she wasn’t allowed to complete the internship. I sat opposite Leyla like an idiot as she told me this story. I squirmed on my stool and said things that echoed from the white walls of her room and disappeared in the Nirvana of helplessness.
Leyla did get her internship certificate, however, and applied for surgical assistant traineeships at around 30 hospitals.
She initially received only one invitation for an interview, the second one followed a few days later. Given her documents, her effort, her competence and her demeanour, two interviews are the very least she should expect in my opinion. And yet I’m relieved. The pressure is enormous. This is her chance to find a new perspective, to be independent, to hold onto her dream of studying medicine, to participate in life in Germany, to be a trainee rather than a refugee.
Leyla hasn’t just done a lot. For one-and-a-half years, she learned German in one form or another every day from four in the morning to nine at night. She took herself to the job centre and rummaged through a careers advice guide where she discovered the traineeship. She researched all the hospitals from top to bottom and collected tips on how to write a CV from career advice services. I have of course helped her with this, but nothing happens in Leyla’s life where someone is supporting her and she doesn’t already know what to expect from them. If she can’t do something then I have to do it for her, and her brown eyes look at me as if to say, “Can’t you do it any quicker? Honey, I know you have a cosy life but I don’t have all day.” But then she laughs again, runs into the kitchen, brings back sweets, puts too much sugar in the coffee, and we laugh about a few of my stories about men or grin about her father’s Denglish.
If I tell friends and acquaintances about her successes, I often only get a shrug of shoulders in return, as if all this amounts to the very least you’d expect. Work, training, it’s just the way it is. At the same time, the state doesn’t even go half way to meeting the needs of refugees who are able and willing to work. People are completely buried in processing asylum applications. Integration into the job market is a ‘luxury problem’. The job centre and refugees agency aren’t interlinked and stand in each other’s way. This is fatal for refugees. On the one hand, there’s the “we can do it” mantra; on the other hand, key gateways that are fundamental to integration are closed.

Leyla received her first rejection yesterday and in our WhatsApp chat we’re now sending each other crying emoticons again. And hearts.

P.S. Meanwhile Leyla was able to start her FSJ (voluntary social year) at Charité Berlin.

Read how Friederike and Leyla’s Integrationspatenschaft (integration mentorship programme) started, and why this is somehow a funny word, in the first part of this short series.