German research organisations, among them the Helmholtz Association and the Max Planck Society, publicly announced the opening up of job positions for refugees. The Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, home to stellarator Wendelstein 7-X, has accepted the challenge. Three Syrian refugees are now being trained in the field of precision instrument making.

Three Syrian refugees have found their way to the workshop of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald. They are being trained in precision instrument making.

Three Syrian refugees have found their way to the workshop of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald. They are being trained in precision instrument making.

Finding home in a workplace

“When I first saw it, I thought it was a hospital but not a workshop. It was so clean”, says Mohamad Haithm Alnhas Humse (called “Haithm”) with a shy smile. At least he was able to find something familiar in a place 3,700 km far from home. The mechanical workshop of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald reminds him of the tiny shop his father used to run. But, his former working place is currently out of order: there is no electricity anymore in that part of Damascus.

Precision instrument making

Before he and his brother Mohamad Alnahas Alhomsi (called Mohamad) escaped their home country Syria, they were producing cooking pots. Their basic knowledge of the metalworking industry has brought them to Siegfried Hartig.
For more than 35 years, Siegfried Hartig has taught young Germans in the tricks of precision instrument making. Although the instructor will be retiring next year, he has taken on a whole new challenge: training grown-ups with a very basic understanding of German and an entirely different cultural background.

Accepting the challenge

"I work hard in order to integrate; I want my wchildren to have a future here", says Mohamad Haithm Alnhas Humse. (Picture: EUROfusion)

“I work hard in order to integrate; I want my wchildren to have a future here”, says Mohamad Haithm Alnhas Humse. (Picture: EUROfusion)

Haithm and Mohamad do not talk much. They remain rather silent and attentive as Siegfried Hartig demonstrates putting a piece of metal into the workshop’s vice. The language barrier is the first challenge, and is proving difficult for both sides. Safety regulations must be taught and understood. Secondly, the trainees need to learn the specific terminology of the field; words even a German native speaker would have problems understanding.

Siegfried Hartig explains how hard it was for him and his pupils to overcome the linguistic challenges. There are no books available that would help him or his Syrian apprentices to translate the most important things. “Basically, it is all hands-on and all in German, from the very start”, he explains. So strong wills and complete dedication are necessary in order for the two brothers, Haithm and Mohamad, as well as their colleague, Belal Katthab, to succeed.

For the future of their children

“I work hard in order to integrate; I want my children to have a future here”, says Haithm, the older brother. After arriving safely in Germany two years ago, he managed to bring his wife and the twins, who are only 18 months old, here. And he also spent time looking for a job. By that time, the German Helmholtz Society, of which IPP is an associated member, and the German Federal Employment Agency had announced a pilot project for refugees which offers positions in research or technical fields.

A first contact

Haithm, Mohamad and Belal are based in Greifswald and are three of ten refugees in the Helmholtz Institutes who are doing a so-called initial training placement. This placement was originally designed to prepare German youngsters to enter into a three year apprenticeship. Siegfried Hartig, his superiors and the board of directors of IPP decided to give it a go after the three applicants had successfully completed a first internship in autumn 2016.

Lot of paperwork

Although IPP had the means to realise the pilot project, it took Katja Kuettler, Head of the Administration, a lot of paperwork. According to her, this preparation time was time well spent: “Our research institute is supported by public money so, I think, we should give society something in return.” It is important to her that a topic, which still is intensively discussed in Germany and beyond, is incorporated into the daily life of a research institute “It is a great opportunity for our staff to actually get to know Syrian refugees and work with them. It is challenging stereotypes, of course”, she adds.

An act of will

“I thought I would never have to say this but I have occasionally wished for German students to be so reliable, eager to learn and committed to their traineeship”, says instructor Siegfried Hartig.

“I thought I would never have to say this but I have occasionally wished for German students to be so reliable, eager to learn and committed to their traineeship”, says instructor Siegfried Hartig.

Instructor Siegfried Hartig, a patient man with friendly eyes, surely confirms that. Every morning, Haithm, Mohamad and Belal arrive on time, and their day starts at seven. Of course, they also complete their homework as well as attending a further language class.

Learning goes both ways

There are the cultural differences as well. A Christmas party can become tricky. Siegfried Hartig thought of serving traditional mulled wine, a hot spiced red drink for him and his protégés. But since his students do not consume alcohol, it was necessary to switch to a non-alcoholic version, a fruit punch. Alternatives were also required for some of the sweet treats since they usually contain gelatine, an ingredient which Muslims do not eat because it is often made from pork products. – “I deal with it. In fact, I learn a lot too”, says the instructor smilingly.

Offering professional workers

The initial training placement for Haithm, Mohamad and Belal will last from February until August this year. After this they should be able find an apprenticeship for 3.5 years to become a trained Precision Instrument Maker. Unfortunately, IPP does not have the options to pursue this. To make sure his trainees will make their way, Siegfried Hartig diligently checks the local newspapers for job positions.

“We have taught them the basics. They even know a profound amount of German and terminology related to the field. For a job within a company, their skills are already golden”, he says.

Specific German words related to the metallworking industry.

Specific German words related to the metallworking industry.