When Germany opened its borders during the worst refugee crisis in recent years, one woman felt compelled to help people who had left behind high-flying careers in academia
“I knew there must be people coming here who were scientists, and how horrible it must be if you were once using your brain for something, working all day on a subject, and now just sit around,” says Dr Carmen Bachmann, professor of business taxation at Leipzig University.
It was 2015 and Germany was facing a fourfold increase in the number of asylum applications compared to the previous year. People were fleeing war, violence and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East: the largest influx in the country’s post-war history.
Bachmann decided to build a website to help academics who had had to flee their countries, connect with their German peers. Using a template of a dating site, Chance for Science encourages users to enter a profile and their location and area of study, which results in relevant ‘matches’. These can be collaboration or research opportunities, or simply ideas sharing. “I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Bachmann.
The site now has more than 700 users, including at least 200 refugees, but Bachmann says it was a challenge to get refugees on board when it launched in September 2015. To attract users, she visited refugee camps and handed out flyers. She remembers the first academic she met at a refugee camp in Leipzig. “It was an emotional connection, as he had left everything apart from his diploma in engineering. He was happy that someone saw him as an academic and not only a refugee. Studying something like that, you think of your personality as part of it.”
He was happy that someone recognised him as an academic and not just a refugee
While Chance for Science wasn’t solely set up to help refugees find jobs – more so the exchange of ideas with their German counterparts – Bachmann is enthused by the success of the site. “I know some examples of where refugees have met German professors and they applied for scholarships and now successfully work together. It feels good to have made that contribution via the website.”
Bachmann herself is currently teamed up with Günay Karli, an academic in computer science who had to flee Turkey. “He has helped me with a presentation that’s focused on using big data in business,” she says. “He feels like he’s being useful, rather than just sitting around.”
Chance for Science is run by Bachmann and a team of volunteers, but last year the professor received funding from the state of Saxony to host a series of educational workshops designed to help refugees understand the academic system.
More than two years since the website’s launch, Bachmann says she feels heartened by her fellow academics’ kindness. “When I started, so many German professors wanted to join in. Now that it’s happening, it’s giving them the chance to do something meaningful in their field.”
Images: Mo Zaboli