While Others Saw Refugees, This German Professor Saw Human Potential | KUOW News and Information

While Others Saw Refugees, This German Professor Saw Human Potential

Feb 9, 2017
Originally published on February 14, 2017 8:05 am

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the refugee problem confronting the world today. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 30,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict or persecution.

But one energetic university professor in Germany decided that bemoaning and hand-wringing wasn't solving anything, so she decided to take action.

Carmen Bachmann is a professor of tax and finance at Leipzig University. There are some 6,000 political refugees living in Leipzig, and the government is only able to supply their basic needs. She could have helped by volunteering for relief agencies that collect clothing or furniture for the refugees, but that didn't seem to her the best use of her time.

"I'm a full professor," she told me when I visited her Leipzig office. "I thought my contribution to [easing] this problem is what my profession is."

Bachmann had heard that there were people in the refugee camps with advanced academic training. She decided to reach out to them.

"I know the special needs for people with an academic background, and this is what I can contribute," she told me. "I thought, if they wait one year and they stop researching and stop studying it's a big loss. It's a loss for the people who lost their knowledge. It's a loss for the society."

Bachmann's first thought was to help these refugees find jobs. She called the Federal Employment Agency office in Leipzig.

"We don't have programs for highly qualified people," Ferry Heuer, an adviser from the agency told her. Most of his job listings for refugees were for unskilled laborers, he explained.

Thwarted on the jobs front, Bachmann decided instead to create a website that would make it possible for refugee scientists and social scientists to directly get in touch with German academics in their fields.

The connections made via the website might lead to a job, Bachmann figured, though not necessarily. It might lead to an invitation to a seminar, or to collaboration. Or it might help refugee scientists gain access to the latest research journals.

Minimally, she thought, the website could be valuable as a social network for professional support. It could be a way that Germany's academics could be matched with marooned colleagues from other countries to help the refugees stay engaged in their field of study — to learn about the latest advances.

Bachmann and one of her graduate students threw themselves into the project. There were many nights with little sleep. Finally, four weeks after they started working on their website — Chance-for-Science — it was ready to go live.

"I felt goosebumps when we pushed the button and the website was online," Bachmann said. "I thought, OK; now online and we can sleep well. It will work."

Only, it didn't work.

Oh, the German media loved the project. Bachmann did lots of interviews, and other universities got in touch. "Great idea," some told her. "We want to help refugee scientists too."

The problem: Not one person had yet signed up for help.

"We had no refugees," Bachmann said.

She was discouraged. But she also knew from experience that sometimes a personal touch is needed.

Bachmann's own life once resembled that of the refugees: isolated, with not enough to do. She was in her late teens and a single mother, living on welfare.

When she needed a helping hand in those days, support didn't come from a website. It came from a former high school teacher who reached out to her.

"He, nearly every second week, came and brought me books, or just wanted to talk about those books," Bachmann said. "We made a walk in the park with my child, and we just talked. This somehow kept me alive — that I could talk about these books with someone."

The interest that teacher showed in her helped give her life meaning and direction, Bachmann said; it helped propel her to the successful career she enjoys today.

If the refugees weren't coming to her website, Bachmann decided, she would go to them.

"I thought, 'OK, it can't be a big problem. I will find them.' "

Bachmann went to a camp the government had set up in Leipzig that, at that point, housed about 1,600 refugees.

"When I went inside and saw the small beds, and so many people in such a small place without any private sphere," she said, "this was shocking for me."

She had made some fliers to hand out describing her website, but she wasn't really sure how to proceed. So she did the most obvious thing she could think of: "I just walked around and said 'Hello, is there anyone speaking English or speaking German? I am Carmen from the University.' "

At first the refugees didn't know what to make of her — a small, intense tax specialist. But slowly, they started coming up to her, and said something to Bachman that she hadn't considered: " 'I have nothing. But I have my diploma.' "

Most of these academics had their diplomas with them — for a Ph.D. in biology, or an engineering degree. Bachmann realized that these people had fled with only their most precious possessions — and, for many, the diploma was one of them.

One Syrian engineer she met in the camp "was just happy that I recognize him as a professor," Bachmann recalled. "He told me, 'I feel like nothing here. In Syria I was a professor, and I come here — I can do much more than sitting around.' "

After those sorts of conversations, "it became more concrete for me," Bachmann said. Her determination to help the refugees went from an intellectual idea to more of an emotional commitment.

And her work is now starting to pay off.

More than 500 people have now registered on the website — so far, about a quarter are refugee scientists and social scientists. The rest are German academics who want to help.

Officials at the European Union have invited Bachmann to Brussels to discuss her project.

On the day of my visit with Bachmann, she invited me to a university event where she'd set up an informational table to tell people about her website.

When I arrived, she was standing with a couple she wanted me to meet.

"Just two days ago this great couple wrote me an email and asked if I can connect them to the scientific community in Leipzig," Bachmann said. They introduced themselves as Youhanna Najdi and his wife Yalda Davoudpour. He's a political scientist with a Ph.D. Her doctorate is in nanotechnology. They're both refugees from Iran.

Bachmann invited the couple to join a seminar the following week, and they seemed eager to look through her website to find possible connections.

"That makes me happy," said Bachmann. Happy to keep intellectual capital — and human capital — from going to waste.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When people flee their countries and become refugees, they leave behind nearly all their possessions. Often they give up their careers, too. They have to start over from scratch in their new countries. As part of his series Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca went to Leipzig, Germany. There, a professor is trying to help refugee doctors, engineers and scientists reclaim their professional lives not just for their own sakes but for Germany's, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: A few miles from the heart of Leipzig, there's a cluster of brick buildings from the 1920s. About 150 people live here - adults and children mostly from countries like Syria or Afghanistan. The place has a grim and institutional feel. House manager Alex Boyer (ph) says these buildings do not have a happy history. They were originally part of a psychiatric institution. Later, the Nazis used them to house forced laborers.

ALEX BOYER: And in the '50s, this was used for women in prostitution. And after, disabled people were living here. Yeah, it is a very bad history - all the time, people living here who nobody wants to see.

PALCA: There's not much for refugees to do here besides eat and sleep.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

PALCA: Oh, there are some German language classes...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking German).

PALCA: ...Some orientation courses for German life, but mostly, Boyer says, it's just waiting.

BOYER: The academic people - engineers, doctors - they were used to work their whole life. And here, they can do nothing, so, I mean, they're just waiting.

PALCA: And that idea of all that talent just waiting started to get under Professor Carmen Bachmann's skin.

CARMEN BACHMAN: I thought if they wait one year and they stopped researching and they stopped studying, it's a big loss. It's a loss for the people who lost their knowledge. It's a loss for the society.

PALCA: Today, Bachmann is a full professor at the University of Leipzig, but two decades ago, she too was languishing - a single mother on welfare going nowhere. The government was taking care of her basic needs like food and shelter, just as it's doing for the refugees now, but she says people need more.

BACHMAN: It's also a basic need that you use your brain for something.

PALCA: She says, look; the refugee situation isn't political for her. She doesn't care whether the refugees stay or go. But Bachman's a professor of tax and finance. To her, all these people just sitting around doing nothing...

BACHMAN: ...It's a waste of human capital. It makes no sense to lose this.

PALCA: She decided to look into what work opportunities were available for scientists and academics. She called the unemployment office and spoke with Ferry Heuer. He told her, sorry, we don't have anything for scientists.

FERRY HEUER: We don't have so much programs for highly qualified people - is the problem. Mostly, the most programs we have - it's for helper.

PALCA: Helpers - jobs like stocking shelves in big warehouses. Bachmann thought she could do better.

BACHMAN: I'm a full professor, and I thought my contribution to this problem is what my profession is. And I know the special need for the people who has an academic background, and I thought this is what I can contribute.

PALCA: She decided to create a website. She and one of her grad students modeled it on a dating site. Think match.com for refugee academics looking to meet with German academics. Bachmann threw herself into the project. There were many nights with little sleep. Finally, four weeks after they started working on it, the website was ready to go live.

BACHMAN: I felt, like, goosebumps when we pushed the button, and the website was online. And then I thought, OK, now it's online. Now we can sleep. Now it will work.

PALCA: Only it didn't work. Oh, the media loved the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking German).

PALCA: Bachmann did lots of interviews.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking German).

BACHMAN: (Speaking German).

PALCA: And other universities got in touch. Great idea, they said. We want to help refugee academics, too.

BACHMAN: But we had no refugees.

PALCA: Not one signed up. Sure, Bachmann was discouraged, but she realized from experience that sometimes a personal touch is needed. When her life was on hold and she was a single mom on welfare, help didn't come from a website. It came from a former high school teacher who reached out to her.

BACHMAN: He nearly every second weekend brought me books or just wanted to talk about those books. And we were made a walk in the park with my child, and we just talked. This somehow kept me alive - that I can talk about these books with someone sometimes.

PALCA: Bachmann says that personal connection made an enormous difference in her life. So if the refugees weren't coming to her website, she would go to them.

BACHMAN: Can't be the big problem, so I will find them.

PALCA: She went to a refugee camp the government had set up in Leipzig.

BACHMAN: When I went inside and I saw the small beds and so many people on such a small place without any private sphere - this was shocking for me. It...

PALCA: There were hundreds of people, thousands?

BACHMAN: There were 1,600 people.

PALCA: And so you walked in and said, hello, is there a scientist here?

BACHMAN: Yeah because I didn't know how to go ahead with the project. So I just run around. I made some flyer, and I walked around and say, hello, is there anyone speaking English or speaking German? Well, I'm Carmen from the university.

PALCA: At first, the refugees didn't know what to make of this small, intense tax expert, but then, slowly, they started coming up to her. And they did something that surprised Bachmann.

BACHMAN: The first thing they showed me was, I have nothing, but I have my diploma.

PALCA: A diploma for a Ph.D. in biology or an engineering degree. And that's when she really began to understand how important their scientific training was to them. These people had fled with only their most precious possessions, and the diploma was one of them. She recalls one Syrian scientist she met in the camp.

BACHMAN: When he talked to me, he was just happy that I recognized him as a professor. He told me, I feel like nothing here. In Syria, I was a professor. And I come here, and I can do much more than sitting around here. And it became more concrete for me.

PALCA: It sounds to me like this went from an intellectual idea that you would try to do something to a more emotional commitment.

BACHMAN: I got personally affected by these because it's hell what they're going through - and yeah.

PALCA: Bachmann's commitment continues today, and her work is starting to pay off. More than 500 people have signed up for her website. About a quarter are refugee academics. Officials at the European Union have invited Bachmann to Brussels to discuss her project.

Before my producer and I said goodbye to Bachmann, she invited us to a university event where she set up an informational table to tell people about her website. When we get there, Carmen is standing with two refugees she'd like us to meet.

BACHMAN: Just two days ago, this great couple wrote me an email and asked me if I can connect them somehow to the scientific community in Leipzig.

YUHAN: Yeah. My name is Yuhan.

PALCA: He introduces his wife, Yiallo.

YIALLO: Hi. Nice to meet you. I come from Iran. I got my Ph.D. in nanotechnology.

PALCA: This, Carmen says, is what it's all about.

BACHMAN: I'm already happy about them. They came today, and we already made an appointment for next week that you can join the seminar, which is in English. So, you know, that makes me happy (laughter).

PALCA: Happy to keep intellectual capital and human capital from going to waste. Joe Palca, NPR News, Leipzig. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.