A Fresh Start

Eighteen young people from Afghanistan, Syria and Africa attended WACKER’s Career Orientation Week in 2016. Twelve minors who had fled their countries now live at the Burghausen Vocational Training Center’s youth guest house. Two women from Afghanistan and Syria are being trained as office administrators. Acting on multiple levels, WACKER is working to integrate young people. The work is full of surprises.

At the Burghausen Vocational Training Center (BBiW), six young people gather eagerly around Alfons Kimberger. A metal-working instructor, he shows them a metal plate that they are expected to tailor-cut and shape into a box in the hours to follow. He explains to the young men from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria what a “center punch” is and how you use one to place markings on a steel plate that had already been measured with a metric ruler.

Over the course of the day, Kimberger welcomes a total of three teams of six, who receive initial insights into the field of metalworking during WACKER’s Career Orientation Week for young refugees. Other courses on offer include “chemistry” and “electrical engineering.” Kimberger had given himself plenty of time for his metalworking course: one hour for demonstrating and explaining the job, one hour for the work itself and one hour of buffer. But he soon realizes that won’t be enough time. After all, he needs to explain everything in great detail and precisely demonstrate how to make a smith hammer, for example. Kimberger is particularly impressed by their efforts, explaining that “The boys are highly motivated, curious and polite.”

When finished, none of the metal boxes are perfect, but that’s not the point. Far more important is the fact that they have had fun handcrafting something and have gained an initial insight into the requirements needed for those interested in training to become an industrial mechanic or a chemical technician. In addition to practical exercises, participants benefited from the chance to talk with WACKER trainees during Orientation Week. They also saw WACKER’s production facilities, workshops, hydroelectric power plant, and the giant logistics halls with all the forklifts and countless blue drums.

The instructors at WACKER gained an important teaching experience, too. They now know that dealing with young refugees requires a lot of patience and that it can be quite difficult to explain something when the potential trainees speak many different languages. “On the other hand, the Orientation Week changed my own perspective,” said Alfons Kimberger. “I can now relate to these young people’s situation much better.”

Instructor Alfons Kimberger shows a group of young refugees how to operate a drill (photo)

Vocational Orientation Week at the Burghausen Vocational Training Center (BBiW): instructor Alfons Kimberger shows a group of young refugees how to operate a drill.

Participants full of energy at the Vocational Orientation Week (photo)

The migrants can get a feel for what subjects like “Metals,” “Chemistry” and “Electrical Engineering” are all about.

The BBiW’s managing director, Dr. Wolfgang Neef, added that “As a company, we have a social responsibility, and when people are fleeing war and violence, we want to help them to become integrated here. It is not a task for someone acting alone, but a joint effort involving aid groups, academic support, political engagement – and of course support from companies.”

Cooperation in Education

Orientation Week is just one example of how WACKER is working to help young migrants. Another example is the SchlaU School in Munich, for which WACKER is providing a total of €200,000 in funding over several years. The school is considered a role model for educational work with refugees – and was recognized with the Bambi Award for Integration and the “Deutscher Schulpreis” Award for excellence in education. “I like the fact that WACKER not only supports us financially, but also collaborates with us on content,” observed Björn Schalles, who runs the SchlaU school. “WACKER can teach us, for instance, how a chemical corporation works and what it means to work with refugees in rural areas.” Urban and rural structures differ radically – with associations playing a much larger role for refugee work in rural areas than they do in cities. Employees at the SchlaU School, for their part, provided WACKER’s instructors with valuable tips on interacting with youth from far away countries and on issues of legal residence status. The experts from SchlaU also provided important advice for Orientation Week – the BBiW then implemented the project in collaboration with the vocational school in Altötting.

Matthias Lang, a senior faculty member at the school, is responsible for finding internships for refugee students. In his opinion, Orientation Week “gave these young people an excellent, practical look at what it’s like to work in industry.” After a few weeks, some were able to rule out a chemical career, while others remained interested. And they all realized that more than anything else, they had to improve their German-language skills for training to work out.

Good Prospects at the Youth Guest House

The guest house with its 78 rooms is a just a stone’s throw from the BBiW. Most of the rooms are occupied by trainees from Germany and Austria. But in 2014, explained Neef, WACKER decided to “allocate some of the available rooms to unaccompanied minors, so that they had a home and, above all, prospects.” A total of twelve young people from Afghanistan and Africa moved in, six of whom are now attending an integration class at the vocational school with the aim of successfully completing their secondary education. The other six have already found vocational-training positions in the fields of electronics and automotive mechatronics, and as decorators, butchers and sales staff. Two social workers support the youths. “The Afghans and Africans initially kept to themselves,” said Neef. “But contact with other young people is no longer a problem for them.” They all play soccer or go running together now. The only difference at this point is the contents of the refugees’ refrigerators, where a lack of sausage and pork is offset by chicken and exotic vegetables and grains.

WACKER had originally planned to award 5 percent of its vocational-training positions to refugees. “But then we saw that wouldn’t work,” said Neef. After all, every applicant is treated the same, regardless of their country of origin. The only deciding factor is the question of who is best suited for a given vocational-training position – but when they take the aptitude test, many applicants from African and Arab countries lack the necessary German-language skills.

Homa and Fay: First a Bachelor’s Degree, Then WACKER Training

The situation was different for Homa and Fayhaa. Both women have been on a three-year administrative course in office communications since September 2016 – the only refugees to start vocational training at WACKER in 2016, out of 158 trainees in total.

Homa and Fayhaa: The first refugees to start training at Wacker (photo)

Homa (left) and Fayhaa are the first refugees to start training at WACKER.

Dr. Wolfgang Neef, BBiW’s managing director (photo)

Dr. Wolfgang Neef is the BBiW’s managing director. Alongside BBiW instructors, he is committed to integrating people forced to flee war and violence.

Homa came to Germany in March 2014. Prior to that, she had studied Persian literature in Afghanistan, gaining a bachelor’s degree and working for a brief time as a university instructor. Right from the start, she was told she must keep her voice down so that the men in adjacent classrooms wouldn’t hear her. On her second day, one instructor recommended that she shave off her long black hair so that it wouldn’t stick out from under her hijab any more. And shortly after that, a student said to her, “If you wear nail polish, I’ll cut your finger off.” She was not allowed to respond to the threat, because women are forbidden to speak to male students. She was fortunate to have been raised in an open-minded family. While her mother would have been pleased to see Homa, like her three sisters, married at age 18, she also accepted Homa’s preference for taking language courses, pursuing university studies and traveling. For years, Homa fought for women’s rights in Afghanistan, asking provocative questions like: “Why do I have to wear a hijab when men don’t? And why are men allowed to have four wives, but I can’t have four husbands?” Statements like that put Homa’s life in danger. “I could have sacrificed myself in Afghanistan,” says the 27-year-old today, “but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to live.” She fled and now lives with a family near Burghausen.

Like Homa, Fayhaa, whom everyone calls Fay, also has a degree – a bachelor’s in business administration that she earned in the city of Aleppo, Syria. Fay’s professional prospects were outstanding, and she launched her career at a telecommunications firm before moving to Dubai with her husband to take a job as a human resources manager. Fay’s daughter was born while they were in Dubai. But when Fay’s husband lost his job and the young family was wanting to return to Syria, the first bombs began falling on Aleppo. So, Fay and her husband decided to fly to Germany in September 2015. They ultimately ended up in Burghausen, where the local aid group recommended Fay to apply for work at WACKER.

Learning German from Your Daughter

Fay and Homa couldn’t speak a word of German when they arrived in Burghausen – Homa, however, already spoke six other languages and Fay had spoken exclusively English in Dubai. Both, in other words, are gifted at languages and found outstanding German teachers in Bavaria. For Homa, it was her host family – and for 34-year-old Fay, it was her little daughter learning German (and a bit of Bavarian) at preschool who, in turn, taught her mom. As a result, Fay and Homa both passed the aptitude test at WACKER with flying colors.

Gerhard Stadler, head of WACKER’s administrative careers unit, personally informed the two by phone that they had been accepted, asking them to come to the training center to sign the paperwork. “We usually just send people their contracts,” he says, “but I wanted to explain everything to them.” Procedures also needed changing for their journey to the introductory-week location. “We always go to Berchtesgaden and take a shortcut through Austria,” Stadler explained, “but we couldn’t take it this time because they aren’t allowed to leave the country.” Incidentally, during the introductory week, Fay translated for a new WACKER trainee from Hannover – from Bavarian into German.

Homa experienced a few surprises as soon as she started her vocational course: “In Afghanistan, I would stand up and give my boss my seat whenever he came in the room. That’s different here. And Mr. Stadler makes his own coffee – that would be inconceivable for a boss in Afghanistan.” Homa and Fay regularly move to new departments so that they gradually get to know the whole company. “Working for WACKER is a dream come true,” says Fay. The chances are good that the two will be able to stay on at WACKER after their training. “Good performance guarantees a position for at least twelve months,” said Stadler. “Plus, the chances of getting a permanent position aren’t bad.”

Thanks to Homa and Fay, he gained new insights into life in Afghanistan and Syria: “It’s not only about war, soldiers and the Taliban,” he explained. “These two young women have taught us a lot about their country and its people which is not shown on the news, such as the culture or the role of women in Afghanistan.” Wolfgang Neef sees them as “completely normal, capable young people, and we’re happy about how they're turning out – just as I always think it’s great when opportunities are offered and then taken advantage of.”

Orientation Week will be held again in 2017. It may also pave the way to a vocational position for one or more other youths interested in a technical profession. Alfons Kimberger hopes he will be able to show another group of young refugees how to make little metal boxes in his workshop. When that happens, however, he will give the youngsters much more time. After all, working with refugees is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. “It takes time,” he explained, “that’s the only way to make this a success.”

1 Vocational Orientation Week at the Burghausen Vocational Training Center (BBiW): instructor Alfons Kimberger shows a group of young refugees how to operate a drill.
2 The migrants get a feel for what subjects like “Metals,” “Chemistry” and “Electrical Engineering” are all about.
3 Homa (left) and Fayhaa are the first refugees to start training at WACKER.
4 Dr. Wolfgang Neef is the BBiW’s managing director. Alongside BBiW instructors, he is committed to integrating people forced to flee war and violence.