10 October 2017

On Berlin: Syrians and startups

When thousands of Syrian refugees arrived in Berlin in 2015, tech whizzes were the first to respond.

Berlin seems to possess a particular kind of magnet attracting some of the world’s most creative and enterprising souls. This is a city of eternal newcomers, where the only way to get ahead is by working closely with others who, until recently, were strangers. This is possibly why so many startups find it so attractive; a place where you need wit, guts and more than a little luck to make it.

Many of its members also share a fierce sense of civic pride. Here, you can find software developers combining their day jobs with evening efforts to combat the rise of far-right extremism on the net, or to provide greater online security for activists working in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

It’s an environment of ceaseless innovation, with a desire for social progress one of its keenest elements. More broadly, it’s a natural refuge for IT geniuses and coding whizzkids who grew up as misfits in small hometowns, who know very well how tough it can be to strike out on your own and make a new life in a new place.

It’s no surprise, then, that the thousands of Syrians who arrived in Berlin in 2015 were greeted by many in the tech scene with such open arms. At that time, it seemed that everyone I knew was using their skills to help however they could; one friend, who had trained as a doctor but is now a property developer, provided hours of free healthcare at makeshift refugee camps. Another friend, an accomplished cook, prepared food and then arranged its delivery to the train stations where Syrians would be disembarking after their journey. A group of translators got together to compile the Refugee Phrasebook, a list of expressions that would be helpful for those still getting to grips with the famously difficult language of their new home.

Berlin’s startup crowd also had a think about how it could contribute. At Techfugees, in early June last year, they met to discuss ways of using technology to ease the journeys of refugees through Europe. Now that these Syrians are slowly settling into life in Germany’s capital, they have turned their thoughts to helping them feel at home and find employment. IHK Berlin, one of the city’s leading business networks, holds seminars where recently-arrived refugees can receive guidance on how to set up their own businesses, including tips on how to navigate what might be an alien business culture.

Some of the most inspiring innovations have come from Syrians themselves. Migrant Hire, an online platform which lists job opportunities for refugees in the IT sector, was co-founded by Hussein Shaker. After two years of working on its own, it is now merging with Jobs 4 Refugees, and has a database of 15,000 job seekers.

Elsewhere, there is the ReDI School for Digital Integration, which was set up in a refugee home in Berlin in February 2016. Its aim – to harness the considerable IT skills among refugees to help them and their peers make their way in German society – is an ambitious one, and has already found some success.

With over 40,000 IT positions currently looking to be filled in Germany, there is an immediate requirement for its services. The ReDi School has so far incubated three startups, including Bureaucrazy, an app which, as its name suggests, simplifies the reliably sluggish bureaucracy of the German system for new users. (This app, come to think of it, would probably also be of great use to those who grew up in Germany – it’s not as if they find the system much less confusing.)

If anything can be learned from Berlin’s experience with refugees, and how the startup scene has responded to them, then it is this: the arrival of those fleeing conflict should not be treated as a burden but as an opportunity.

Just look at Frauenloop, a non-profit supported by professionals from the software industry, which was set up with the aim of helping women – particularly those with immigrant backgrounds – to get jobs. Holding weekly sessions, they allow Syrian women to adapt their qualifications, which in very many cases are extensive, to the new job market.

Initiatives like this don’t treat refugees as a drain on the system, but as people who can play their role in making Berlin more dynamic. In a political climate like this, where so much emphasis is placed upon what immigrants take as opposed to what they give, the startup scene has shown us the way forward; if you invest your time and patience in people, they will slowly begin to flourish, to the benefit of all.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based writer, musician and poet.

First appeared in issue 19 Oct/Nov