Part two: Nadwa’s story
It was a Saturday in April 2022 and Nadwa Jazzan was making falafel, hummus, and tabbouleh for a local organisation supporting Ukrainian refugees in Mühlenbecker Land – the small town near Berlin where she had moved to be with her husband Adham four years earlier.
The hours cooking weren’t really time she could spare, but it felt like something she needed to do: The same organisation had supported her when she arrived in 2018, and she empathised with the Ukrainians who were arriving in Germany after fleeing their homes. As a Syrian, she too had left her home because of war.
What she really needed to be doing, though, was studying for a German language exam just under a month away – a test that would go a long way to determining her future.
Finding her way in a foreign land
Like many other Syrians who have managed to reach Europe since 2015, Nadwa was an upper-middle-class professional in her home country. She worked as an English professor at Damascus University before the revolution-turned-civil war upended her life. Her goal was to be able to work in her professional field again in Germany and regain that status – but the process of getting there was a challenge.
Germany’s bureaucratic job market required proficiency in German for even low-level positions like drivers or dishwashers – Nadwa was still learning the language. Qualifications and work experience from other countries were often not recognised, so people had to spend time and money getting re-certified, or switch professions entirely.
“How would you feel if everything you have done in your life was suddenly irrelevant to everybody around you?”
In Syria, Nadwa had completed a five-year master’s degree, but the German system only credited her for three years – the equivalent of an undergraduate degree.
“It felt like I was starting from nothing,” she later told The New Humanitarian. “When I enter the classroom and close the door, I forget everything about the world. When they didn’t accept my full degree, all of a sudden that was cut off.”
The lack of recognition of qualifications issued outside of Germany is one of the reasons why around two thirds of working-age Syrians in Germany were still dependent on the state in some way in 2021 – a situation that made it harder for them to integrate into society.
“There is an expectation that you need to get retrained to enter that labour market,” said Heba Gowayed, a sociology professor at Boston University and author of Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential. “That can make people feel really isolated and not seen.”
“How would you feel if everything you have done in your life was suddenly irrelevant to everybody around you?” she asked.
Because of those barriers, Nadwa realised it would be nearly impossible to become a professor in Germany. But maybe, she thought, she could become an English teacher and at least enter the classroom again.
Nadwa would have to get certified to teach a second subject, a requirement of the German system. She and other Syrians also had to contend with xenophobia and expectations from Germans about how refugees should be assimilating into society. These unwritten rules acted as informal barriers to employment and other opportunities. Nadwa did not wear a hijab, but she knew other Syrian teachers who were required – or felt pressure – to uncover their hair if they wanted a job, though this wasn’t technically legal.
Despite the difficulties, Nadwa, now 49, was on the verge of success by 2022. She had already found work as a teaching assistant. Now, all she needed to do was pass the advanced German language exam, and she’d be able to work as a full teacher in Germany.
“I had a great job and a great life in Syria,” Nadwa said. “I don’t want to lose that feeling.”
A difficult decision
Nadwa had endured never-ending work days, the value of her money plummeting, and accusations of conspiracy since her husband, Adham Amer, left Syria for Germany in 2015, after his son was kidnapped and killed and only a year after they married.
The two met online after Adham saw Nadwa’s Facebook pictures from a trip she had taken to the United States in July 2011.
“She was just so confident in herself,” Adham said. “When we met in person, she was so ambitious about her work. It just drew me in.”
In that first meeting, Nadwa saw how kind Adham was, and how supportive he would be.
“Adham was, and still is, a gentle person,” she said. “He believed that I could do anything then, and still now.”
When Adham arrived in Germany – after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and trekking through the Balkans – the couple hoped Nadwa would soon be able to follow. But it took more than three years for her case to make its way through the backlog of Germany’s family reunification programme.
When her application was finally approved in 2018, Nadwa faced an unbearable decision: Her ex-husband, who had been abusive, would not allow their 14-year-old son Tammam to go with her. Going to Germany meant leaving Tammam behind, while staying in Syria meant indefinite separation from Adham and staying in a country ripped apart by civil war.
“I want to bring you with me.”
Fighting in many parts of Syria had eased by 2018, but the country’s economy had collapsed after years of war. Even as a university professor, Nadwa only earned the equivalent of around $30 per month. She didn’t have enough money to buy Tammam a pair of jeans, let alone pay for his education.
In the years since Adham left, Nadwa had tried to keep a low profile to avoid trouble. She knew how coincidences could make someone seem suspect in the eyes of Syria’s regime.
In 2012, she had a run-in with the secret police after children at an orphanage where she had volunteered for years staged a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fact that she had visited the United States in 2011, around the time the Syrian revolution started, was enough to prompt an investigation as to whether she had instigated the protest. Nothing came of it, but she didn’t feel safe in Syria.
After talking with Tammam, Nadwa decided she had to leave. They figured once Tammam turned 18, and he no longer needed approval from his father, they would find a way to bring him to Germany. Until then, Nadwa trusted that her family members in as-Suwayda would take care of him.
Weeks before her son’s 15th birthday, Nadwa hugged Tammam goodbye. “I want to bring you with me,” she told him, crying.
Confronting bureaucratic barriers
In Germany, Nadwa constantly checked in with Tammam via WhatsApp to see if he was eating and studying enough, and she also sent money back to help support him when she could. Then, in April 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Tammam’s father contracted the virus and died.
Tammam had a strained relationship with his father, but he mourned his loss even as it opened up a new opportunity. He was now free to go to Germany.
Nadwa and Adham didn’t want to go through the backlogged family reunification process again and wait years for Tammam to reach Germany. They opted to go through a non-refugee immigration process, which would allow him to come if financial support was in place. But in April 2021, Nadwa was still looking for a full-time job.
She had logged 16-hour days studying German after she arrived in 2018, passing an intermediate test nine months later – quicker than many of her peers in her language class. She soon found out that Back on Track – a Berlin organisation that helps newly arrived Syrian teachers and educators find jobs in the German school system – was looking to place qualified candidates. She eventually would get a spot in the programme with the hope of eventually getting placed in a school. In the meantime, she still had little money to sponsor Tammam.
Help arrived, once again, in the form of Ulerik Haase, the neighbour who had befriended Adham when he first arrived and who had helped facilitate Nadwa’s arrival three years later. Now, Haase stepped in to help Adham and Nadwa overcome the bureaucratic barriers, finding a relative who pledged to support Tammam financially if Nadwa and Adham could not.
After obtaining a financial guarantor, the visa process proceeded relatively smoothly. Tammam finally boarded a flight to Germany in June 2021 – just under three years after Nadwa had left Syria. The day Nadwa met him at the airport was the happiest of her life.
No one can take him from me again, she thought.
A return to the classroom
With Tammam now under her roof, Nadwa had a new eagerness to find work. Through Back on Track, she soon found a job as a teaching assistant at a German-English bilingual school in Berlin.
She entered a German education system with a significant teacher shortage – the country’s workforce is ageing and few young people want to go through the extensive training process. So Nadwa was thrust into chaotic classrooms on her own to teach students she didn’t know. At the end of the day, she would make the hour-long commute home exhausted, yet proud. She was earning 2,100 euros a month – just enough to cover rent and groceries for the family.
“I got my family off of government support by myself,” Nadwa said. “I felt like flying.”
Between work and German class, she was putting in 14-hour days, sometimes cooking and cleaning during online class. She was exhausted from working, learning German, and taking care of her family. She got sick often with a cough or headache. Her body was worn down. But in February 2022, she had a performance review: She had excelled in the classroom.
The school decided to give her a class of first graders that fall, even though she had yet to pass the advanced language exam or become certified to teach a second subject, as was generally required. Because of the teacher shortage, more were needed, and Nadwa had proven she was capable. The position would also come with a raise of 600 euros per month – which she would later negotiate up to 1,000 euros per month. She planned to start paying back a 5,000-euro debt her family owed the German government, a sum she felt she was unfairly charged to pay back for subsidised rent.
Even though it wasn’t required for her job, Nadwa still decided to take the advanced language exam to prove to herself she could pass. She also knew it would open up future opportunities.
“I have to pass to be a role model for my students,” she said. “I’m really afraid I won’t and will have to face my class as a language teacher who couldn’t pass a language test – as a failure.”
Despite her doubts, Nadwa passed the test in May 2022, and planned to spend the summer decorating her new classroom.
“But there is still Adham – he’s struggling with work,” she said at the time. “And Tammam, German class is not for him.”
As she was starting to find her way in Germany – earning a living, making friends, and building a life – Adham was having trouble holding a job. Nadwa had big dreams for Tammam, too. But he was new to Germany and behind in language class.
“Leaving a war after being far from my mom, then trying to figure out a new life here,” said Tammam, who was also still thinking about the loss of his father, “I didn’t care about learning the language.”
After Nadwa’s long days, she would go to her son’s room, worried that Tammam was still recovering from the pain he experienced as a child and teenager.
“Let me help you with your homework,” she told him. “We can figure it out together.”
Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.