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Enterprising refugees make headway in Germany’s startup scene

by Cristina Belda Font

From the moment he stepped foot in Germany in early 2015, Hussein Shaker new exactly what he wanted: to rebuild his life. What he did not know, however, was that he would also end up helping rebuild the lives of other refugees who, like him, have valuable skills and want to put them to work in Berlin’s growing technology industry.

“In Aleppo (Syria), I had set up my own business. I was working as an IT teacher and completing my final year of information technology studies at university. I was busy from nine to nine,” the young entrepreneur tells Equal Times.

<p>Social entrepreneur Anne Kjaer Riechert (right) in the school ReDi, teaching integration and digital skills. There are over 43,000 unfilled vacancies in Germany's IT and telecommunications sector. According to figures from 2015, around 33 per cent of the people employed in Berlin start-ups are foreign nationals.</p>

Social entrepreneur Anne Kjaer Riechert (right) in the school ReDi, teaching integration and digital skills. There are over 43,000 unfilled vacancies in Germany’s IT and telecommunications sector. According to figures from 2015, around 33 per cent of the people employed in Berlin start-ups are foreign nationals.

(ReDi School of Digital Integration)

Shaker had no choice but to leave his life behind, but he was not prepared to sacrifice his career. His first encounter with the world of work in Berlin was in 2015. He worked part time as an Arabic-speaking operator in a call centre. He devoted the rest of the day to his mandatory German classes.

“But (all this activity) it wasn’t enough for me,” he explains. Shaker wanted to make a change and he was in the just the right place to put his skills to good use. “Berlin is the technology capital of Europe. It is here where it’s all happening.” The German city’s start-up ecosystem is growing at breakneck speed and in the post-Brexit scenario it looks set to become Europe’s innovation hub par excellence, according to experts in the sector.

It was against this backdrop that Shaker’s meeting with Berlin-based Norwegian entrepreneur Remi Elias Mekki, followed by lengthy conversations, led them to co-found the recruitment and enterprise platform MigrantHire.

It is not a website, like many others, to which you upload your curriculum and wait for a call. “MigrantHire accompanies job seekers throughout the whole process, from help with the paperwork to preparing them for interviews,” points out its co-founder. It also holds workshops, providing guidance to those wanting to set up their own businesses. An example is the Refugee Business Accelerator. Their plans are ambitious. “Our aim is to get 10,000 refugees into jobs by 2017,” says Shaker.

The platform welcomes professionals from different sectors, but is mainly geared towards the technology industry. Why? Firstly, because there are over 43,000 unfilled vacancies in the IT and telecommunications sector. And secondly, as Shaker points out, “It is a very international industry that doesn’t necessarily require a high level of German.”

According to figures from the 2015 Deutscher Startup Monitor, around 33 per cent of the people employed in Berlin’s startups are international workers. Added to this is the pool of highly qualified professionals, mostly from Syria. “Most of our candidates have a senior profile. They have an average of ten years’ experience in the hi-tech field and have worked in major cities such as Dubai,” underlines the Syrian entrepreneur.

 
Promoting innovation and networking

With a total of 1.1 million new asylum seekers since last year, mostly from Syria (40%), followed by Afghanistan and Iraq, Germany is the EU country receiving the highest number of refugees. According to experts, this may prove beneficial, given the increasingly ageing labour force.

“Our neighbours are a great resource. Their readiness and resilience, as well as their eagerness to learn, are exactly what the country needs,” Anne Kjaer Riechert, a social innovation graduate, tells Equal Times. She goes on to point out, however, that the talents of many skilled young people are all too often asphyxiated, little by little, in refugee camps.

On average, asylum seekers have to wait between 12 and 16 months before their applications are processed and they receive their papers. “During this time, they can neither continue with their studies nor enter the labour market. Imagine the human cost of this inactivity,” she underlines.

To maximise their potential and promote innovation, this young social entrepreneur decided to set up the ReDi School of Digital Integration, offering courses and workshops as well as providing co-working spaces for the students and their mentors. Over a hundred students, in total, have been through the school, and everything is set for the next group to start in October.

“Programming is only 50 per cent, and the other 50 per cent is about fostering a spirit of enterprise and building networks,” says Kjaer. For her, the most important thing is that the students “have a space of their own, where they can develop their ideas and aspirations. In short, it’s about creating a community around a shared interest.”

 
Innovation to tackle everyday problems

Many of the school’s students have developed innovative projects designed to overcome everyday obstacles. The Bureaucrazy application, for example, was conceived with the aim of guiding other refugees through the maze of bureaucracy when they reach Germany.

The app, which is still a prototype, provides translations in Arabic and English as well as a map of key locations in Berlin and a long list of answers to the most common questions posed by asylum seekers. They plan to extend it to other tasks in the future, including guidance on how to rent a flat or to apply for a place at university, and not only for refugees.

“We’ve come to realise that it is a problem faced not only by refugees but all newcomers and even Germans themselves, which is why we want to open it up,” Omar Alshafai, one of its developers, tells Equal Times. “At the end of the day, everyone hates bureaucracy,” he laughs.

The plan is to make it available for download by early 2017, but they still have to cover staffing costs and find investors to fund their idea. Access to credit is a yet another hurdle faced by refugee entrepreneurs. Many are even confronted with obstacles when it comes to opening a bank account. The team of developers have launched a crowdfunding campaign. But, as the electronic engineering graduate points out, “What is missing is government support to promote the idea.”

 
Changing perceptions

For Alshafai, entrepreneurship is not only central to developing cutting-edge projects but also to changing perceptions. “There is a belief, fuelled by the media, that refugees don’t want to work and, even, that we are extremists. However, he points out: “We have our professions and we want to make a difference in society.”

Fadi Zaim, one of his colleagues at the Digital Integration School, from Damascus, supports this view. Zaim is an executive director of Jasmin, an online Syrian food catering service, which he has set up with his mother and his sister.

They presented it at the 2015 Startup Summit and were given a very good reception.

“Our service seeks to give middle-aged women access to economic independence, at the same time as promoting cultural exchange,” the economics and business graduate tells Equal Times.

Their biggest challenge is getting exposure: “Because we’re new to the country, we don’t have a strong network of contacts.” Their customers are not necessarily from their region, quite the contrary, in fact. “The local people love our cuisine, and we’ve even adapted our menu to the vegan diet, which is so popular in Berlin!” he recounts, enthusiastically.

For Zaim, the ultimate aim is to boost the economy of what he calls his second home. “Many people brag about evading taxes, but I see things quite differently. I want to repay German society for some of what it has given us, by creating employment and contributing added value to society.”

 
This article has been translated from Spanish.

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