Local authorities in Germany offer traineeships to Syrians

Twenty-five Syrian refugees were accepted onto a one-year trainee programme in municipal administration with seven German local authorities. As it turns out, the Syrians were not the only ones to benefit. Claudia Mende reports

By Claudia Mende

Initially, things were difficult for both sides. The people working in local government administration didn’t know what to expect. They had never had to work with trainees quite like these. And on the other side, everything was new to the Syrians, not only the language, but also office etiquette and procedures. They had absolutely no idea what would be demanded of them.

The biggest surprise for the Syrians was "that the municipal administrative staff actually worked to address the concerns of citizens," said 23 year-old Hane Moshmosh. In Syria, citizens were expected to pay bribes before local officials would take any action. Moshmosh comes from Damascus, where he studied economics before the war in Syria forced him to abandon his university studies.

He was one of 25 trainees chosen from across Germany to take part in the "Communal Know-How for the Middle East" initiative launched by the Engagement Global development policy agency. In 2018 and 2019, these trainees were introduced to the working methods of German municipal administrations. The aim was for the trainees to observe how administrative structures and democratic processes function at the local level.

Highly qualified interns

At the same time, they gained the opportunity to improve their chances on the labour market. Taking part in the initiative were municipalities of very different sizes and structures: the small community of Beverstedt in rural Schleswig-Holstein, the rural districts of Donau-Ries in Bavaria and Hameln-Pyrmont in Lower Saxony, the town of Maintal near Frankfurt, and the cities of Darmstadt, Giessen, and Krefeld.

The Syrian applicants ranged in age from 18 to over 50. Many had arrived from Syria with degrees in subjects such as engineering, architecture, IT, economics, psychology, and education, while the older ones amongst them also had work experience. Never before had the municipal services such qualified trainees at their disposal. During their year-long learning phase, they were paid the statutory minimum wage, financed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

They were introduced to the various departments in the local administrations, in particular those responsible for the press, culture, legal affairs, the environment, public order, land use, public utilities, building, the municipal archive, tourism, and IT. This provided the trainees with a glimpse into the whole range of administrative activities.

Syrian Ahmed al-Hamoud (photo: Maintal municipal authority)
Chance für den beruflichen Neubeginn: Ahmed al-Hamoud, 28, ist in Homs geboren und lebt seit etwas mehr als drei Jahren in Deutschland. Ein in Syrien begonnenes Jurastudium konnte er auch in Ägypten aus politischen Gründen nicht abschließen. Er floh deshalb über die Türkei nach Deutschland und wollte hier sein Studium abschließen. Das Angebot eines Praktikums in der Stadt Maintal nahm er gerne an, "weil ich gerne mit Gesetzestexten arbeite und wissen wollte, wie eine Kommune in Deutschland funktioniert."

Some trainees were lucky enough to gain insights in areas of work directly related to their studies or professional qualifications. Unfortunately it was not always possible for trainees to work in their area of expertise, for example, offering an architect a position in the building department.

Culture shock

Samie Morad, a 30-year-old lawyer from Damascus, found his first days in the city administration of Krefeld to be a "culture shock". The rules and codes of conduct were very different to those in Syria. At first, the lawyer thought he would not be able to meet the requirements of the work. Bayan al Marashli, aged 22, found herself in a similar situation when she began her traineeship in Maintal. The high school graduate from Damascus was initially unsure how the departmental staff would react towards her. Everything was new and the language barrier was high. After a few days, however, she was able to relax as "everyone was so helpful and patiently answered all my questions."

Most of the trainees were able to promptly familiarise themselves with their tasks, improve their knowledge of German, and quickly grasp the unfamiliar procedures and rules.

Nonetheless, there were also some frustrating experiences, such as that related by Khaled Khalifeh, a 29-year-old civil engineer. Khalifeh, married with four children, had begun his studies in Syria, completing them in Egypt in 2012. He then had three years of professional experience working in the United Arab Emirates. In 2015, the family had to return to Syria, but fled to Germany eight months later. He was assigned a traineeship with the community of Beverstedt in Schleswig-Holstein.

During his traineeship in the community’s building department, it became clear to Khalifeh that the building focus in Germany was quite different to that which he had experienced in the Emirates. Instead of constructing shopping malls, he was now busy planning child daycare centres. Not only the construction materials used, but also the building regulations and rules of tender for the construction projects were very different. Even native German speakers would be forgiven for not understanding the terminology. The experience was initially sobering for Khalifeh. He had to ask himself if he would ever be able to work in his chosen profession in Germany. Yet, the civil engineer refused to give up and he doggedly persevered.

Knowledge of still foreign terrain

"Although he found the experience frustrating, it was very important," says Detlev Fanger from the Beverstedt administration. "He was able to acquire important new skills for the labour market within the protective framework of the programme."

Khalifeh assesses the situation likewise. "It was extremely important for me to learn about the whole process of building in Germany," says the civil engineer. “It was difficult at the beginning, but I was really helped by the way the administrative staff holds together like a family." Having concluded his placement, he applied for a position at a construction company. His experience with the municipality counted in his favour and he got the job.

In addition to enhancing their qualifications for the German labour market, the traineeship also served as an introduction to the foundations of democracy. Hane Moshmosh was impressed by his experience in helping to prepare for the Bavarian regional and state elections in 2018. It provided him with a demonstration of how democratic elections function at the local level. Furthermore, he was able to participate in a public meeting to discuss the planned construction of an indoor swimming pool. Through this very specific example, he was able to experience how citizen participation functions.


Moshmosh was not the only trainee to gain such insights. Ahmed al Hamoud, 28, was born in Homs and has lived more than three years in Germany. The law degree he began in Syria he was unable to complete in Egypt for political reasons. So he fled to Germany via Turkey, hoping to be able to complete his studies. As he was missing important documents, however, this option was ruled out. He gladly accepted the offer of a traineeship in the town of Maintal, because, as he says, "I like to work with legal texts and I wanted to know how a local authority in Germany functions."


Win-win situation


Al Hamoud was impressed at how democratic processes were organised in the committee offices and, in particular, how the municipal council discussed the use of city funds and that it was normal to express controversial opinions. "There are no such discussions in Syria. People there are afraid to express their opinions."


Yet, it wasn't only the Syrian refugees who gained from the experience. Daily contact with the migrants proved valuable for the administrative staff, as intercultural awareness is a matter of current concern. Tensions and biases are best broken down by direct personal contacts, admitted Tagrid Yousef, Commissioner for Integration in Krefeld. "All studies on integration come to the same conclusion."

Through personal encounters and informal chats during coffee breaks or lunch, the staff were able to talk to the refugees about their living situations, their children and family members, thereby gaining a better understanding of their circumstances, says Karl-Heinz Koster, Coordinator for Communal Development Policy in the district of Donau-Ries.

"It was only then that the meaning of intercultural communication became truly tangible." To see how a woman wearing a headscarf and an Arab man could usefully contribute to the daily tasks and offer their own productive ideas proved to be of great value to the administration, says Integration Commissioner Verena Strub. "It was an important learning experience for the administrative staff."

Anything but aid recipients

The refugees were thereby seen not in their usual role as aid recipients, but rather experienced as colleagues with responsibilities. During his trainee period with the Department of Social Services, Senior Citizens, and Housing in Krefeld, Samie Morad learned how to process applications for basic income. He now knows what criteria have to be fulfilled, who is entitled to state benefits, and how to calculate the level of allowances.


This was an important experience for Morad, who as a refugee had only been familiar with administrative bodies from the perspective of an applicant. "Of course, my German isn’t perfect," he confessed. "Everything is new for me. But I was able to significantly improve my language skills during the traineeship."


Working towards the reconstruction of Syria


The experience of changing roles and providing help to others was a great boost to the self-confidence of the refugees. Hane Moshmosh enjoyed his time working at the tourist information office in Nordlingen the best. Himself a newcomer, he could now point out the local attractions tourists.


The project, financed by the Ministry of Development, is not only meant to facilitate the integration of Syrian refugees here in Germany, but also to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria. There is no doubt, however, that Assad now holds a firmer grip on the reins of power in Syria and the conflict in Idlib has escalated once again. There can hardly be any talk of reconstruction, let alone a democratic new start in the foreseeable future.


"We don’t know when or how the political situation in Syria will change," said project director Jennifer Ichikawa from the service agency Communities in One World. But German municipalities can provide Syrian refugees with an understanding of how local government and democracy at the local level functions. "This project is an investment in the future."


Claudia Mende


© Qantara.de 2020


Translated from the German by John Bergeron