Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr
Last December, Navid, a 30-year-old from Iran, arrived at a refugee shelter in rural Germany, just south of Berlin. Navid says that he is a political refugee and came to Europe by boat from Turkey to Greece, like the hundreds of thousands of others in the fall of 2015. When the Germans who managed the shelter asked the busload of asylum seekers if anyone spoke English or German and could serve as a translator, Navid volunteered. He spoke English well, and he knew that he would be able to help the Farsi and Dari speakers among the new arrivals. Navid also was eager to demonstrate that he was a hard worker. He had arrived in Germany during the great surge of asylum seekers when thousands were crossing into Germany every day, and he wanted to distinguish himself. Navid, who asked that his real name not be used, has translated at other asylum seekers’ doctors’ appointments and at parent-teacher meetings at schools. Sometimes his translation duties interrupted his German classes. His hours are inconsistent and his assignments last minute, he said.

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For this work, Navid was paid a salary of one euro an hour. At the end of each month, he received a check ranging from thirty to fifty euros, which he cashed at a bank in the nearest town. Like other asylum seekers, Navid received a monthly stipend of three hundred and twenty euros, free lodging, and other welfare benefits. This wasn’t what he expected when he came to Germany from his home in Tehran, where he had been in the military. Nor was the shelter, a camp in the middle of a forest, how he had imagined his home in Europe would look. He had imagined fancy apartment buildings in cosmopolitan cities. Not a lightly trafficked road through the forest. “I am doing this job to make some new connections, find new people. I don’t have any other options,” Navid told me one afternoon, over beers at a park by the Spree River in central Berlin. Navid was still waiting to hear whether he would be granted asylum as a political refugee or denied residency and potentially deported. Without asylum, people like Navid have a more difficult time finding employment because they must prove that a German citizen isn’t available for the job they are applying for. Asylum had been taking an average of six months to be processed, but in areas that have been overwhelmed by asylum seekers, like Berlin, the wait can take even longer before they land the coveted interview that may lead to a residency visa. Nadja Jung, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, said that there are no records for how many asylum seekers have found regular employment. “Of course, I think it’s not enough and not right,” Navid said of his translator’s salary. “Of course, I think they are using us. They are using our skills and abilities. It’s not just translation. I see people painting the walls and they do other things, and these are just one euro jobs.” Navid’s salary is part of a German government policy dating back to 2003, in which the long-term unemployed are offered extremely low-wage jobs, along with significant welfare benefits, with the idea that these jobs will eventually help people find employment in the normal job market. In 2016, as part of a new refugee integration law, the German government announced that it will create a hundred thousand more low-wage jobs for asylum seekers, but these will pay only 80 cents an hour. The plan went into effect last August. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been under mounting pressure over the federal government’s handling of the refugee crisis, including how Germany’s newcomers — nearly 200,000 were awarded asylum from January to August of last year— are going to find work. In a recent interview, Sigmar Gabriel, the vice-chancellor, said that the government had “underestimated the challenge” of integrating refugees. An investigation by the Hamburg-based NDR television station found that 100,000 asylum seekers in Germany have been working illegally. The new low-wage jobs are intended to preserve employment opportunities for citizens because they are one step removed from regular employment. According to Jung, the spokesperson for the labor ministry, examples of such jobs would be “helping with the preparatory work for creating an herb garden in a school, helping to renew a fence in a kindergarten, helping to keep public parks clean, helping with the demolition of a building.” Companies that hire asylum seekers will receive two hundred euros a month for each individual hired from the federal government, but this is meant to be compensation for any expenses companies may incur hiring asylum seekers, not payment. It’s not clear how asylum-seekers will be selected for these jobs, since in all likelihood there will not be enough opportunities to go around. However, if refugees are offered a job and they refuse to work, their monthly cash stipend, which starts at one hundred and forty-three euros (Navid receives more because his shelter does not provide daily meals) will be cut. Furthermore, Jung said that language classes, university studies, apprenticeships and other “measures of integration” are meant to take precedence over the low-wage jobs, unlike what Navid experienced. She said that it’s not clear yet how many asylum seekers have been hired under the new integration act, or how many were hired in temporary jobs at their shelters, like Navid, before the new law was applied.

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“The political decision to create 100,000 jobs was a certain symbol, a populous symbol,” said Bernd Mesovic, deputy managing director of the immigration advocacy organization, Pro Asyl. The low-wage job program may not offer significant financial support to refugees, but “the integration of refugees in the labor market is one of the main pillars of successful social integration,” wrote the spokesperson for Germany’s Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in an email interview when asked the purpose of the low-wage job program that doesn’t have a financial impact on refugees in Germany. Jung acknowledged that the program was also intended to make Germans more tolerant of asylum seekers. The low-wage jobs “create meaningful occupations serving the public good in and around reception centers, without being employed. This improves the acceptance of refugees on a local level.” After a few months of working as a translator, Navid asked the shelter’s management if he could be moved from his current dorm room, which he shares with a rotating cast of seven other men, to a private space. Navid’s argument was that he had essentially volunteered dozens of hours at the shelter, and now it was time for the administration to help him. He was finally moved to a private room in September, but for the months until then, he felt it as a slight. Then, in July, Navid told his shelter that he was no longer going to translate. He said that he told the shelter’s manager “You don’t help me. So why should I help you, because it’s not a job.” Abdul-Fattah, an Afghan man who lives at Navid’s shelter, told me that the management deleted Navid’s name from the list of translators, “But anyway, he was still working for us,” Abdul-Fattah said. Navid often translates for Abdul-Fattah’s pregnant wife during her doctor’s visits. “The Afghan people came to me and said ‘Please we need you,’ and I had to translate because they were my friends,” Navid said. An hour’s drive from Navid’s shelter in the woods, Minna, a twenty-three-year-old from Syria, lives in a shelter in the Berlin neighborhood of Friedrichshain, home to many of the capital’s nightclubs. Minna serves food at her shelter cafeteria for a salary of less than one euro. Even before she was paid for serving food, she worked as a volunteer. “It’s better than doing nothing,” she said, sitting on a bench outside her shelter one sunny afternoon. Karam, a 21-year-old friend of Minna’s also from Syria, said that he would like to have such a job, but none was offered to him. Minna said the shelter makes sure that the shifts don’t conflict with her German classes. She had been studying education in Syria when the war forced her to flee. She wants to be a kindergarten teacher and hopes to get her German teaching certification once her residency has been finalized. I asked Minna if she felt that she was being taken advantage of by being paid such a small salary. “I don’t care,” she said with a shrug. “For some of them, it’s more a problem to be paid so much below the minimum wage. They will say ‘If I do a job of that kind maybe I’d prefer to do it without payment,’” Mesovic said. “But on the other hand, there are refugees who paid a lot of money in their home countries to make it to Germany, so of course they would need every cent.” One afternoon after meeting at his shelter, Navid and I followed the dirt path that led out the camp’s front gates to a nearby lake. Along the way, we passed some Afghan kids playing in the dirt. They greeted Navid with a salaam. We settled down at a picnic table. Across from us, two Syrian adolescents blasted Arabic pop music from a cellphone. Germans were sunning themselves on beach towels.

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Along the lakeshore were large homes with manicured lawns. Navid said that his friends, other asylum seekers in Germany, believe that they will never be able to obtain such luxuries. These friends tell Navid, “You came as a refugee. You are like a slave. They will never let you get so high.” That mentality hasn’t won over Navid yet. He holds on to the idea that if he makes enough of an effort, he will be able to succeed in Germany. Navid wants to get a master’s degree in business to compliment his first master’s degree in engineering. “I want to find a good job,” he said. “I hope, too, that the things I don’t have now, I will have.” This story was produced with support from Robert Bosch Stiftung