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Germany's Cold Shoulder Wastes Immigrant Talent

Dempsey, Judy. "Germany's Cold Shoulder Wastes Immigrant Talent." International Herald Tribune, 15 November 2007.


BERLIN: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, over a million Russians, most of them Jews, immigrated to Israel. It was an enormous challenge for such a small country, then of five million people. But the government, in true Zionist tradition, activated its integration program.

The Russians were immediately sent to compulsory, state-funded Hebrew classes. Good, cheap housing was built south of Tel Aviv along the shores of the Mediterranean. Child care centers were expanded. Retraining courses were established.

Within a few years, the Russians had made their mark. Young male and female engineers, scientists and computer technicians flocked to help build what was to become Israel's successful high-tech industry. Others went into business, banking, medicine or teaching. Of course, not everyone who came from Russia to Israel during that time made it. But the point was that the immigrants were made to feel welcome.

The contrast with Germany, with a population 15 times as large, could not be more striking. During that same period of the 1990s, some 2.8 million Aussiedlers, or ethnic Germans from Russia, came to settle in Germany.

Many were highly educated, particularly the women who had been trained in the sciences, which was common throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. "We are talking about engineers, scientists, technicians, doctors. Here was a great chance for Germany," said Dagmar Maur, an integration specialist at the Otto Benecke Foundation, an independent organization set up 40 years ago to provide retraining courses particularly for young immigrants to help them integrate.

For a short time, the German government provided language courses. But the wave of arrivals from the former Soviet Union coincided with a big debate inside the country over immigration. With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the wars in the Balkans, conservative politicians wanted tighter restrictions all around, while the Social Democrats said it was time Germany admitted it needed an immigration policy. Unemployment began to rise, too, fueling calls by the conservatives to restrict the number of people entering Germany.

Manuela Westphal, professor of pedagogy at Osnabrck University, explained that the Aussiedlers and other immigrants were the first to bear the brunt. "German language courses were cut back. Housing benefits were reduced or scrapped. There were few child care centers for mothers who had wanted to retrain and enter the labor market. Women were particularly hard hit," she said.

Even if highly qualified women tried to get a job, the bureaucratic hurdles they had to jump in order to have their qualifications recognized were often insurmountable, said Mona Granato, an expert at the Federal Institute for Professional Training. "You have here a situation where the 16 federal states have their own education system, often with different standards or requirements. You can't imagine how demoralizing the situation became and continues to be for young qualified immigrants," she said.

Often, the Aussiedlers became resigned. The women's priority was to get their own children well educated so that they would be able to climb the ladder. But Granato says that many of the daughters, who saw how the qualifications of their mothers led to very little, become discouraged. "They often ask what is the point of studying engineering or the sciences if their mother could not find a job," said Granato. "In the end, young, qualified women go into the services sector. Call it de-qualification. Their potential is not being used."

It is even worse for the third generation of Turks. While their grandparents and parents came as gastarbeiter, or guest workers, to make up for the big shortage of unskilled labor during the boom times of the German economy during the 1960s and 1970s, some of the third generation have tried to break out into the professions.

But Westphal says even internships and training are not accessible. "Company managers will opt for the German," said Westphal. "Managers sometimes even explain that their customers would prefer to deal with a German."

A study published this September by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is funded by the Social Democratic Party, showed that of the 182,000 jobs applied for by young qualified people, less than a third were given to those with an immigrant background.

That figure may seem high compared with the situation in France, where young immigrants complain of open discrimination. But Steffen Krhnert, a social scientist at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, says these figures disguise an even more depressing reality. He says that roughly one in six German residents have an immigrant background. They are twice as likely as Germans to be unemployed and dependent on social welfare.

Reprinted with permission of the International Herald Tribune.

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