Atiq Ur-Rahman did everything he was asked to do when he arrived in Germany as a refugee from Pakistan in 2015. He learned German and got a job working in a restaurant. But what he believes also helped him was that he was lucky enough to be assigned to the state of Baden-Württemberg.
When nearly a million immigrants crossed the German border that year, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel allocated each state a portion of refugees to share the burden. States took care of the migrants as they saw fit. But while in many other parts of Germany, the initial welcome toward refugees dissipated, Baden-Württemberg — home to some of Germany’s biggest manufacturing giants — is turning the migrants into valuable engines for its economy.
Baden-Württemberg fine-tuned existing programs — offering, for instance, women-only language classes with child care that also teach about German culture. Catholic charity Caritas runs refugee homes scattered across Stuttgart, the state capital. The organization, which receives funding from both the state and the city, also helps traumatized refugees settle in. Another of its projects supports victims who need protection.
It’s not a humanitarian motive. It’s a purely economic motive.
Gari Pavkovic, Stuttgart administration
And starting this month, the state is partnering with Deutsche Bahn, which for years has struggled to find train drivers, to teach the skill to asylum-seekers. Apprentices will earn $2,300 (2,100€) per month during their schooling with Albtal-Verkehrs-Gesellschaft, the local train and bus network in Karlsruhe, the state’s second-largest city. Each class will include 15 migrants.
For an industrial hub like Baden-Württemberg — home to auto majors Porsche and Mercedes and multinational corporations like Bosch, SAP and BASF — the approach makes sense, says Gari Pavkovic, head of the Department for Integration Policy of Stuttgart. Aging Germany has an estimated shortage of more than a million skilled workers.
These integration moves also coincided with another trend that runs counter to what’s happening elsewhere. While the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is rapidly gaining support in several states, from Brandenburg and Saxony to Thuringia, in Baden-Württemberg its popularity is declining. A September poll shows support for the anti-immigrant AfD at 12 percent, down from 15 percent in 2016. As mainstream parties in Germany and beyond struggle to stop the surge of the far-right, Baden-Württemberg is showing that the answer to bridging a divide between migrants and locals might lie not just in politics, but in economics.
“If people don’t come, then companies like Porsche or Mercedes can’t produce here,” says Pavkovic. “It’s not a humanitarian motive. It’s a purely economic motive. We do well when we have an open dynamic business and export region.”
With Germany as a whole accepting far fewer refugees than it did in 2015, the numbers entering Baden-Württemberg have declined too. Still, in 2018, the state the size of Maryland accepted 11,000 migrants, mostly from Nigeria, Syria and Turkey — the U.S. plans to admit 18,000 in all, in 2020. Twenty percent of the population has a migrant background in Baden-Württemberg, located in the southwest of the country. In Stuttgart, it’s 50 percent. In comparison, Thuringia in the east counts just over 7 percent of its population as foreign-born.
That difference is partly a legacy of history. Former East German states were closed off from the rest of the world for 40 years. Baden-Württemberg, on the other hand, has a history of openness to migrant workers — earlier for labor-intensive roles, and now as “specialists in technology, computer sciences and natural sciences,” says Pavkovic.
But 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the state is again emerging as a model for others in integrating outsiders in a way that locals feel is in their interest. The unemployment rate in Baden-Wüerttemberg is 3.3 percent, among the lowest in Germany, and the average annual income in 2018 was $60,759, only below Hesse, the country’s financial hub.
Hevin Rasho from Syria, who’s taking a language course tailored for women in Stuttgart, says her brother-in-law moved from Dresden because he “always had problems” there. “Students didn’t want to play with his kids,” she says. People spoke down to him. In Stuttgart though, “it’s completely different. The kids play happily with each other.”
The program with Deutsche Bahn is the latest example of the state’s out-of-the-box approach. In addition to learning how to drive an 80-ton locomotive, refugees will take integration training and job-specific language courses. If they pass the final test, they get a starting salary of more than $3,282 (3,000€) per month with benefits and a job that essentially assures employment for life.
“The program should be a contribution to integration and an impetus for this very important profession to be open to people of all origins,” says Winifred Hermann, the state’s transportation minister.
To be sure, it’s tough for migrants even if they do everything right. In January, the state revoked the protection status for Rahman, though the Pakistani restaurant worker argues his government continues to persecute his Ahmadiyya community. He has appealed the ruling but has lost his job and fears he will be sent back at any moment.
Deutsche Bahn too will only take trainees with sufficient language skills who have passed a psychological test and possess technical knowledge. They need to prove they graduated from a recognized school. For refugees fleeing a war, these can be tough hurdles. That’s where organizations like Caritas — which also helps refugees navigate bureaucracy, from getting educational qualifications recognized to obtaining a driving license — come in. “There are no limits,” says Lisa Maisch, a team leader of one home that houses 146 people. “We connect them or help them figure out ways to do that.”
Meanwhile, for officials like Pavkovic, the goal is to get migrants into jobs as quickly as possible. And Baden-Württemberg has learned, he says, that the best way to do that is to integrate them fast.
OZY brings you untold stories from every German state, introducing you to the new divisions emerging or collapsing 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Join us on a trip unlike any other.