Making It Work On the Frontline of Integrating Refugees

German industry pledged to provide refugees with jobs and training. Several big German companies have been true to their word, contributing to the country's integration efforts and also helping to fill gaps in the labor market.
Refugees being trained by construction firm Strabag, in Bebra near Frankfurt.

Fadi didn't quite manage to pronounce the  German words for “diameter” and “radius” correctly. He was nearly there but his teacher Firas Ajouri is a stickler for accuracy.

Mr. Ajouri runs a class for refugees in Bebra, near Frankfurt, organized by the construction company Strabag and he is determined to teach his students both perfect German and perfect maths.

Fadi, who is Syrian, has been in Germany since September, and this was his first month of lessons with Mr. Ajouri. He was still struggling with pronouncing the guttural German “ch” but was having no problems with the maths. Before he fled Syria, the 24-year-old studied biology for three years in Damascus. Now, in class, he was engaged in an exercise about laying a carpet in a room.

In his class with him are 14 young men in bright orange-colored overalls sitting in the simply-furnished class room. The only decoration was a row of earthenware beer mugs and pitchers, with posters showing the smiling faces of construction workers and the words "Together We Are Strabag.”

Strabag - a company that now includes people like Fadi, Osama and Ibsa. The Austrian construction company set up the refugee class in its training center in Bebra at the beginning of the year. In August the men are to begin training as construction plant operators or skilled civil engineering workers. Until then, the manager of the training center, Mr. Ajouri and three other instructors are teaching the newcomers mathematics and German, as well as German culture in the mornings and working with them on the trainee construction site in the afternoons.

If we are to believe various promises from the German business sector in recent months, then this refugee class should be just one of many dotted across Germany.

Ulrich Grillo, head of the Confederation of German Industry or BDI, promised that industry would be “on the front line” when it came to integrating asylum-seekers into the labor market.

Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche even spoke of a “new German economic miracle" due to the fact that the refugees would fill many of the vacant apprenticeship spots in the country.

SAP and Daimler are role models: they are companies already used to dealing with a great diversity of employees, and know how to take advantage of the current intake of refugees.

They were just two prominent voices among many proclaiming the same message: that work, language and training form the basis for successful integration - and that we need these people.

One initiative after another was launched, accompanied by big advertising campaigns pronouncing the best of intentions: The “We Together” campaign saw companies organizing and presenting new projects; most blue-chip DAX companies joined in, along with a host of family-owned companies. Then in April, the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, or DIHK, and German economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, launched the initiative “Companies Integrate Refugees.” And the Internet platform began placing special advertisements for refugees.


12 p10 Refugees in Germany-01


How many of these promises have been honored?

In 2015 alone more than 1 million refugees came to Germany, and in 2016 there will be hundreds of thousands more. Some find it easier here than others, especially with regard to the challenges posed by the German language.

This is less of a problem in some companies. At softwar giant SAP in Walldorf, around 250 km south of Strabag’s training center, the company language is English, which is spoken by more refugees than German, and programming is international, anyway. That is why learning German is not necessarily a priority, and this also applies when SAP supports local initiatives. The company offers a free course on the Internet for anyone wanting to help refugees learn a bit of everyday German; and there are programming courses in the camps of the United Nations refugee agency. In October, there will even be a “Refugee Code Week” in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.

But SAP is thinking way beyond its core area of expertise about how to integrate new employees: Each of the 100 interns that have been taken on so far is allocated an established employee as a “buddy,” and there are special courses on how to apply for jobs. Even managers are surprisingly active in the search to find appropriate jobs for the interns.

Daimler too is working on making Mr. Zetsche’s forecasts come true. In the first six months of 2016, 300 refugees began a 14-week internship for technical functions; more are planned – to run parallel to German language courses. The company supports numerous initiatives, from food donations to €1 million ($1.1 million) in emergency refugee aid.

SAP and Daimler are role models: they are companies already used to dealing with a great diversity of employees, and know how to take advantage of the current intake of refugees.


Firas Ajouri, who runs an instruction center for Strabag, is training refugees.


The same can be said of Strabag too. Mr. Ajouri, a wiry 40-year-old, set up the training workshop in Bebra back in 1999 for the construction company’s regular apprentices: 70 young men from all over Germany are currently doing their training in Bebra itself, rather than in one of Strabag’s regional centers.

And this training center seems made-to-measure for the refugees. This is where they have their first experience operating excavators and wheel loaders. They call the training excavation pit where they do plastering and lay curbstones, the “sandpit.”

“On a real construction site an instructor often doesn’t have the time to devote to each individual trainee. It just doesn’t work,” said Mr. Ajouri.

Trainees who fail their final examination at Strabag also have the opportunity to prepare for a resit in Bebra. So the “second chances” that all refugees are hoping for are Mr. Ajouri’s daily routine.

And he was a refugee himself: He was 11 years old when his family took flight from Damascus. His father, an engineer, was persecuted because of his Christian faith. One night the family packed their bags and left Syria, eventually making it to Bad Hersfeld near Frankfurt, where Mr. Ajouri lives today. When they arrived there, his father threw away all the family’s Arabic books - from then on, only German was to be read - the language Mr. Ajouri speaks so rapidly and punctiliously today. He only slips up occasionally with the German “ch.”


Fleeing to Germany-01 refugees asylum seekers


Now it is after 2 p.m. and Fadi, Osama and the other trainees were in the sandpit, placing natural stones in a mosaic. Mr. Ajouri was standing on a mound watching them. After the students return to their accommodation in two hours, Mr. Ajouri will return to his office: he does all the administrative work which a management job entails in the evening. In January he was able to employ an additional instructor, but there will be no more new personnel for the time being. However, as Mr. Ajouri says: “My work is my hobby.”

But not all companies and managers have such an admirable attitude. “It’s nothing to do with us,” is what you hear, by way of contrast, when you ask other companies about their involvement with refugees.

DAX companies in the financial sector, in particular, seem uninterested in promoting what, if anything, they do for refugees.

Deutsche Bank, a member of the initiative “We Together” didn't even respond to a query from Handelsblatt; Commerzbank had nothing to show apart from an expression of intent to support a refugee initiative. The German stock exchange, Deutsche Börse. is not a member of any refugee initiative, but it is a DAX company. It said in a statement that: “As a non-manufacturing company, we need employees with specialized expertise.” It was “not possible to provide jobs, especially for refugees, at short notice.”

There was a similar reaction from Munich Re, which said that the specalized nature of its jobs meant it "was always unlikely that we would be able to provide jobs for refugees at short notice.” Although the reinsurance company places recruitment ads on the information platform Careers4refugees, specifically created for refugees, a look at the jobs on offer shows that they are only suitable for highly qualified applicants. Munich Re is part of the“We Together” initiative, but seems to believe that is enough to prove its commitment.

Of course, it is easier for industrial companies like Daimler, Thyssen-Krupp or Strabag to create jobs. It’s quicker to get the hang of things on a conveyor belt or a cement mixer than at a stock exchange trading terminal. But it still sounds like an easy way out when companies refer to language barriers, required expertise and bureaucratic hurdles.

After all, there are countless other ways of getting involved, apart from creating jobs: Adidas gives shoes and sports shirts to refugees, while Daimler provides vehicles for aid convoys. Many companies also release employees on full pay, so they can help – for example, the consumer goods manufacturer Henkel for up to eight days a year.

But it is often medium-sized companies which make extraordinary contributions. The family-run group Freudenberg, for example, which manufactures Vileda household cleaning products among others and supplies various industries, offers a package of aid worthy of any DAX concern. This includes donations of more than €1 million for immediate help in crisis areas and initiatives in Germany, German tuition in cooperation with the Goethe Institute, encouraging their staff to get involved, therapy for traumatized refugees and offers of help for unaccompanied minors. However, Freudenberg still hasn’t employed any refugees – the company claims to be open-minded about that, but up to now, it either hasn’t found the skill-set it was looking for, or it had no requirement at the time.

A tour of the German working environment leaves you with conflicting impressions. Exuberant willingness to help on the one hand - reluctance on the other, but great expectations on both sides. Only one thing is clear: it requires more time and effort than just saying “You’re very welcome” to integrate refugees.


Alexander Demling and Corinna Nohn are correspondents for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]