Refugee Initiative

Refugees in Science: From Hama to Campus Buch

As a scientist you can be expected, even encouraged, to work in different countries during your career, but what about when that decision isn’t a choice. Anita Waltho, PhD Researcher at MDC, spoke with a Syrian refugee, who is now working at Campus Buch.

This year MDC Buch campus welcomed the inauguration of the Käthe Beutler building, posthumously named after the physician and researcher who moved from Germany to the US fleeing the Nazi regime. Eight years after her grandson Bruce Beutler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Käthe Beutler’s extraordinary story was finally memorialised as an article in the “Medizinhistorisches Journal”. As we honour refugees in science from Germany’s darkest period of history, it is important to hear about the experience of today’s refugee scientists.

In 2015 alone, Germany welcomed 890,000 asylum seekers. It is the country with the seventh largest refugee population in the world and the only Western country in the top 15 of this list. Although the exact figure is unknown, a number of these refugees have a scientific background. However, of course it is not so simple to re-establish your scientific career in a new country where you don’t know the language or work culture, and your qualifications may not even be recognized. This is why programs like the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative, which ran between 2015 and 2020, are so important.

Helmholtz support for refugees

The Helmholtz Refugee Initiative enabled refugees to obtain a fully-funded entry-level internship (‘Einstiegsqualifizierung‘), undergo a government-funded dual vocational training (‘duale Berufsausbildung’), or begin doctoral training at a Helmholtz institute. After this, they could receive an additional one year of 50 per cent funding to continue their work. This kind of initiative gives refugees the retraining, integration and connections they need to get back into, or begin, science-related employment. The scheme is not limited to scientists; it extends from PhD students and technical assistants to library and secretarial staff.

To find out more about how this initiative has helped refugees to restart their careers here at the MDC, I had the pleasure of speaking to Eyad Al Emam. Eyad is a Medical Technical Assistant (MTA) at the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC) of the MDC and Charité Berlin, who was generous enough to share with me not just his story but also his delicious hummus!

Leaving everything behind

Every kilometer I left behind another thing, until when I finally arrived in Germany I had almost only the clothes on my back.
Eyad Al Emam in front of the Käthe-Beutler-Haus
Eyad Al Emam Medical Technical Assistant (MTA) at the ECRC

Eyad is a Syrian refugee from Hama. Like 6.8 million other Syrians he was forced to make the difficult decision to leave Syria due to the violence, destruction and poverty caused by the Assad regime and the civil war. He arrived in Germany in 2015 after a month-long journey. He spoke of the expensive and dangerous route he had to take alone, using every mode of transport imaginable. His driving force being the need to create a better life for himself and his family. “I had to sell my car and all the furniture in our house to raise enough money. The journey costs on average between 3000 and 5000 Euro per person and takes between one and three months. I entered Europe by boat. 50 of us were squeezed into a small vessel meant for 30. Sometimes boats sink, and people drown. Once in Europe, we travelled in groups of refugees using only GPS to navigate. At the start of my journey I had a big bag, but as I travelled it became harder to carry all of it. Every kilometer I left behind another thing, until when I finally arrived in Germany I had almost only the clothes on my back.”

From oil chemistry to biomedical research

In Berlin, Eyad was reunited with his family after five months. They then lived in a variety of places, including the most unusual of all – a year and a half at a handball and basketball club in Lichtenrade! Through his integration course, Eyad was put in touch with Maimona Id, the coordinator of the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative for Berlin-Brandenburg at the time. She was able to get him a training position (‘Einstiegsqualifizierung‘) at the MDC. Eyad started as a technical assistant for the research group of Simone Spuler at the ECRC and after one year was given a permanent contract working for the whole building. Back in Syria, Eyad had a scientific background, although in a very different field. “I studied chemistry at the University of Aleppo. After my two years of compulsory military training, I worked for eleven years as a chemist in the laboratory of an oil refinery testing crude oil. Once in Germany, I had my university certificates acknowledged at the University of Bonn.”

Whilst some of us may have complained about having to learn a couple of new techniques for their PhD (me), Eyad managed to make the much more impressive transition from oil quality control all the way to biomedical research. “During my six weeks training at the MDC I had to learn everything from scratch. The work was completely different!”

Public and local backing

My family and I have received so much help from the German government and the German people. The only thing I would improve though is the distance from my house to Buch!
Eyad Al Emam in front of the Käthe-Beutler-Haus
Eyad Al Emam Medical Technical Assistant (MTA) at the ECRC

Six years since he came to Germany and four years since he started at the ECRC, Eyad speaks very positively about his new life. Even despite his nearly one and a half hour commute every day from the south of Berlin to Buch, Eyad is very happy with his job and that he can provide for his family. Throughout our conversation he made a point of emphasizing his appreciation of the new chances that he got here in Germany and the help he received not only from the government, but also the locals. “Thank God, I was so lucky to get this job! I have many friends who are refugees here and are unemployed, even with qualifications. One friend worked at a biotech company here for two years before losing his job. That was a private firm, whereas this is a public institute. It’s much better! I am very satisfied. All my colleagues are also very kind. My family and I have received so much help from the German government and the German people. The only thing I would improve though is the distance from my house to Buch!” (You and me both, Eyad!)

“I am proud to stay”

When asked about the future, Eyad was very set on staying in Germany and in his current job. “I am proud to stay here and work here. Back in Syria there are no future prospects for those who stayed. I send back money to help friends, but I have no family left there. I do get very homesick. Soon I hope to get German citizenship for me and my family. Then we would be able to go back to Syria to visit on holiday.” So, will there be any Nobel prizes in the future for the Al Emams, like the Beutler family (no pressure!)? With fluent German and excellent grades at school, Eyad’s sons have their sights on becoming medical doctors. If they’re anywhere near as brave and determined as their father, I’m sure they will thrive.

Refugees, scientists or otherwise, are increasingly under attack in Europe amid growing support for right-wing parties and anti-immigration policies. It seems that many have forgotten that it was only eight decades ago that Europe had an estimated 60 million refugees of its own due to the Nazi regime and World War IIThese refugees included well-known scientists like Albert Einstein, Edith Bülbring and Sigmund Freud. It is important that we continue to welcome refugees and facilitate their integration with programs like the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative, both from a humanitarian and scientific perspective.

Thank you so much Eyad for letting me share your story.

Additional thanks go to both my friend and translator Ursula Düren and to Dana Lafuente for providing MDC-specific information about the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative.

Additional information about the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative


The Helmholtz 2017-2022 internationalisation strategy states that between 2015 and 2017 more than 200 refugees undertook internships, training or employment at Helmholtz institutes.
In 2016, within the framework of the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC), the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energy (HZB) and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) formed a joint model project to help coordinate the integration of refugees at these centres. Maimona Id worked as the Berlin-Brandenburg coordinator of the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative for one year, co-financed by these three Helmholtz Centres. However, sadly the Helmholtz-Geschäftsstelle did not prolong her position.

A 2018 report stated that at this time 16 refugees had been successfully integrated at the MDC through the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative. (More up-to-date numbers could not be found through my research.) Refugee positions at the MDC have included: PhD student, animal care-taker, technical assistant, library staff member and secretary.

In January 2020 the Helmholtz Refugee Initiative was discontinued because the funding was not sufficiently used.


Further information

This article was first published as part of the Helmholtz “MDC Voices” blog.