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Between homesickness and hope


The crisis has brought them here: how young southern European jobseekers experience Germany.

Between homesickness and hope© Kristian Sekulic - iStockphoto.comGermany offers immigrants good opportunities to find a job

Asterios Tzalavras,

25 years old, medical assistant from Ioannina, Greece: »At the beginning of last year I applied to eight German hospitals. All of them invited me for an interview and then offered me the post. The one I felt best about was the medical director of the Diakonie hospital in Schwäbisch Hall. In February I came here with a suitcase full of clothes. Now I have a job here as a medical assistant.

I decided a long time ago that after my medical degree I had to go to Germany. In Greece I would have had to wait years for a post as a medical assistant. That's normal because far more physicians are trained than are needed. Good grades are no help there. And there is no public assistance for finding a job either. Many of my friends are unemployed. That was something I definitely wanted to avoid.

Anyway, salaries for doctors have been cut. Greek medical assistants are paid 1,000 euros after deductions. Plus 500 euros for nightshifts, but several hospitals have not paid this money for months. How are you supposed to survive on that? I would have had to stay living with my parents, they would have continued to fund me. But they have less money themselves since the government has had to implement austerity measures. My mother is a nursery teacher, she's earning less now. My father's pension has been reduced. Food is becoming more and more expensive, and the price of petrol has of course also gone up.

Now I live in a residential home belonging to the Diakonie hospital. I work and learn a lot and am enjoying it. In the evenings I often go to a Greek restaurant I discovered in my very first week here. The owners and waiters have become good friends. Sometimes they invite me to their homes, or we go somewhere together. When people speak the same language you feel more comfortable. Although actually my German is quite good: I already lived here for seven years as a child. My parents came here with me and my two siblings back then because they were able to offer us more in Germany. Today I'm doing the same thing. I earn more here than a medical assistant does in Greece. And I know if I'm good I can work here permanently. It's not like that in Greece, there you have to be at least the son of a politician in order to find a proper job. Even to get a PhD post you have to know someone!

Life in Germany is fairer, and everything just works here. An example: when I go to work, there's no chaos on the roads. Drivers behave. And living is just like driving. In Greece everyone drives and does exactly what they want. The country stands for the euro crisis, for corruption and nepotism - and no longer for mythology and democracy or holiday destinations. There are people who say to me: »Ah, you're Greek! You do know that I'm paying for your debts?« Yes, I know! But what am I supposed to say? Thank you? Or that I'm sorry? I've started simply making sarcastic jokes myself about my home country's economic situation. Then the Germans see that I know what they're thinking, and don't say any more.«

Sara Benita Bernès,

28 years old, industrial engineer from Vilanova i la Geltrú, Spain: »For 11 weeks now I've been living in a little room in the residential home of the Goethe Institute in Schwäbisch Hall. There are many foreigners here, they all have come to Germany because they believe that they have better career prospects here than in their home countries. Most of them meet in the kitchen and already start drinking beer in the afternoon, in the evenings they have parties. But that's not what I'm here for. I've come to learn German. I have 45 lessons a week. On the weekends I do homework in my room. It's sometimes very lonely. The room is impersonal, nothing belongs to me except my clothes; I've bought a few flowers, but you couldn't call it nice here. I share a bathroom with a few others. We have a cleaning rota, but nobody ever cleans. The hallways smell like a youth hostel. I ignore that. I want to be able to speak German well enough to be able to apply for a job as quickly as possible. Above my desk are notes with vocabulary and grammar rules. Because I'm Spanish, I roll my r's, I have to teach myself to stop doing that. Ilse helps me with that. Ilse is an 84-year-old woman from Schwäbisch Hall whom I met by coincidence. We often get together in the afternoons and speak German. In return I help her with her shopping, baking and in the garden. She's grateful to have someone around, and I'm also happy that I'm not alone. She's like a grandmother to me. I can tell her when I'm homesick, and she gives me a hug.

Currently I'm living on the severance payment my previous employer gave me to hand in my notice. 30,000 euros. I was an engineer at concrete and cement company Hormigones Uniland, and the severance payment was actually quite convenient for me. I was bored with the work, I was overqualified and underpaid at 1,500 euros after deductions. My rent was 1,000 euros including utilities. I couldn't save up to go on holiday, and I never went to bars in the evening or out dancing with friends.

I studied at an elite university in Barcelona, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, and gained two degrees: in mechanical engineering and industrial engineering. I'm currently writing my PhD thesis. I don't have to settle for a badly paid job. I read in the paper that Angela Merkel said during a visit to Spain that there were one million vacancies for engineers in Germany. So I did my first German course at the Goethe Institute in Barcelona in September. The Institute there co-operates with the one in Schwäbisch Hall, that's why I'm here now. I miss my family. Especially on Saturdays. That's when my mother always cooked for us all, and we ate together and talked about our week. Now I'm online via Skype as often as possible in order to still join in a little. Recently I posted my application at the EU Internet portal Eures. Just to see what happens. Today I got a letter from the Federal Employment Agency: four companies would like to meet me at a careers fair in Stuttgart. Perhaps that's already an opportunity. But I won't be sending proper applications to German companies until I speak German a little better, although I have heard of Spanish people who got a job without German language skills. Many of them don't even speak English. In my opinion that's not acceptable.«

Davide Spoladore,

35 years old, mechanical engineer from Rovigo, Italy: »Since April I've been working for a company in Frankfurt am Main that develops motors. When I moved, my girlfriend and I split up. She said our relationship had no future if I was living in Frankfurt and she in Milan. I think the relationship wouldn't have had a future in Italy either. With what money were we supposed to have started a family?

But it all began so well. After studying at the University of Padua I got a job with a vehicle manufacturer in Milan. In the beginning I earned 1,200 euros after deductions, that's quite good for Italy. I was immediately responsible for a small team. We tested new cars. My girlfriend and I moved into a small house on the outskirts of the city together; she was also working for the car company at the time. I worked a lot, sometimes until late at night and even on weekends. Between homesickness and hope 50 hours of overtime a month were normal, but they weren't paid, and I stayed at the same salary level for six years. I liked the work, but it they weren't giving me enough money for it.

Then came the economic crisis, and the production site in Milan had to close. I was the only one who was offered a job, in a factory in Naples, in southern Italy. Better than nothing, I thought. My girlfriend began to train as a nurse, and I commuted between Milan and Naples. But the job in the south was not so good, the people there work differently, they are less ambitious and often don't think about tomorrow. Life there is poor, the houses are in bad condition, the streets are dirty. I wasn't happy, and the salary wasn't right either.

I started applying with vehicle manufacturers and suppliers in Britain, Austria and Germany. And now I've been in Frankfurt since April. I develop electronics for cars. There are 25 people in my team, most of them my age. Half of my colleagues come from Germany, the other half from Turkey, the Netherlands, Spain and China. I feel that my employer takes very good care of us immigrants. The company paid for my relocation and the hotel where I lived until I found a flat. Finding somewhere to live wasn't easy, many landlords didn't speak English and I couldn't speak German yet.

My company is also funding the German course that I attend three times a week at the Goethe Institute. And although I haven't been here long, my salary has already been raised once. I earn much more than in Italy and I have more free time. I work 40 hours a week. In the evenings I can leave early when I have to go to my German course. After that I meet with a few colleagues and we have a drink or watch a movie. On the weekends we sometimes go sightseeing to other towns; after all, none of us are familiar with Germany. Recently we were in Speyer, before that in Stuttgart. I never expected I would be so lucky. I'm not lonely, I'm happy. My life is better than in Italy. With or without my girlfriend.«

From DIE ZEIT :: 19.01.2012