Syrian electrician gets back on track at German rail network
German rail operator Deutsche Bahn's integration programme offers refugees a chance of permanent employment and also fills a gap in the labour market.
Syrian refugee Mohammad Alkhalaf checks the drives, cables and wheels of an Intercity Express (ICE) train at Deutsche Bahn's Hamburg-Eidelstedt depot, where he is training to be an engineer.
© UNHCR/Gordon Welters
Mohammad Alkhalaf, a refugee from Syria, is a perfectionist – and that quality has served him well in his training as an electrician with German rail operator Deutsche Bahn.
“Doctors and electricians are not allowed to make mistakes,” said Mohammad, a second-year trainee. “That is why I always work hard to concentrate on any task. No one is perfect, but I want to do everything perfectly.”
Mohammad, 28, is learning to maintain the network’s fleet of high-speed InterCity Express (ICE) trains. The Hamburg-Eidelstedt depot in northern Germany where he works is the largest in the country and can service eight long-distance trains at once.
Each train comes in every two days, or after travelling 3,600 kilometres, for inspection, cleaning and maintenance.
Finding work is a vital step for refugees like Mohammad as they embrace new lives in host countries. Many sectors in Germany have found opportunities for new arrivals while filling gaps in the labour market. The key is to adapt to a new system.
“It’s all rules, rules, rules, and being on time!” he said. Integration programmes at Deutsche Bahn have switched to online and remote learning to cope with the mandatory closure of education facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and German lessons are held by telephone.
Mohammad grew up helping on his family’s large olive farm in Idlib, in north-western Syria. But he was gifted in maths and physics and knew he would be suited to a hands-on tech role, so after high school he had hoped to study further.
"I was so happy to get the opportunity."
Then war broke out and in 2014 he fled in the hope of joining an elder brother in Sweden. After years of uncertainty he was granted asylum in Germany in 2017. He had already taught himself some German and wanted to become an electrician. But gaining a foothold was hard and that year he sent out 200 applications.
Then he spotted an ad for Chance Plus, an entry qualification scheme with Deutsche Bahn aimed at preparing newcomers for a prestigious vocational traineeship. The scheme offers places to 300 applicants a year across nine German cities. Mohammad got a place on a course beginning in Hamburg in September 2017 and secured his traineeship the following summer.
“I was so happy to get the opportunity after having tried so hard,” said Mohammad. Over the next three years, he will acquire a range of skills, from installation and control engineering to programming.
"I see that I am safer now."
On passing his final exams, he is guaranteed a permanent job with Deutsche Bahn. His learning never stops. “In the train I’m always reading something. It is better than looking at my phone or out the window,” he said.
The course has other benefits too. “We see the participants … developing personally, deepening contact with colleagues, becoming more open and beginning a social life here,” said Ulrike Stodt, head of Deutsche Bahn’s qualification programmes for refugees. Stodt says the rail operator is committed to helping refugees gain the certificates and qualifications they need for the German labour market. The effort pays off in the end, she said.
“We would always encourage other businesses to look into taking refugees on, to train them and to integrate them into their workplaces,” said Stodt. Now on track for a secure future, Mohammad misses his family but knows he is lucky. “When I look back, I see that I’m safer now, and have better prospects for the future,” said Mohammad.