Sylvia Sibilak und Andrea Salerno-Schwarz

Two women for all occasions

Sylvia Sibilak and Andrea Salerno-Schwarz are in charge of the Welcome & Family Office at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). Their job is to facilitate a smooth start in Berlin and at the MDC, especially for new employees from abroad. A new installment of “We at the MDC.”

Some come alone; others bring their wife or husband or even the entire family. But all international newcomers, whether research group leaders or young scientists, have one thing in common: They don’t understand administrative German – and many things have to be arranged before they can take up work.

This is why Sylvia Sibilak and Andrea Salerno-Schwarz start early. “We take care of people before they arrive and help them with the visa application, for example,” reports Sylvia Sibilak. Sometimes it takes longer for embassies to issue entry visas, such as in Iran. Many things need to be clarified: Can the partner accompany the new employee; can the children? What about dual career options? How does one find childcare and an apartment?

Sylvia Sibilak 

Sylvia Sibilak is the “old hand” of the team. The Welcome Office started a good 20 years ago with her half-time position. Even before that, there had been an infrastructure in place for new employees from abroad. But their number had increased and the work could no longer be carried out on the side. Today there are about 550 international employees and guests at the MDC, says Sylvia Sibilak. And new tasks have been added, including a broader range of support for families, which is why Andrea Salerno-Schwarz has been on board since 2018. Born in Argentina, Salerno-Schwarz is mainly responsible for new arrivals from the EU and families, while Sylvia Sibilak is responsible for guests and researchers who arrive from non-EU countries. “We want them to feel comfortable. In Germany, everyday life can often be complicated,” she says. Even though the Welcome & Family Office service is mainly aimed at foreign employees, it is open to all newcomers, helping to ensure that work starts smoothly for all new MDC employees and guests. In this way, Sylvia Sibilak and Andrea Salerno-Schwarz want to make sure new employees feel welcome and identify quickly with the MDC.

Mingling with the Berliners

In order to make the start in Germany easier, the two women give tips on how to register with a health insurance provider and with the Berlin Immigration Office. They provide advice on accommodation and help find a daycare spot or a suitable school for children, if required. They are also present when the MDC contract is signed to answer any questions. They make appointments with public authorities and provide guidance. For example, a tax return must be filed in Germany. “Many people worry a good deal about these things beforehand and are grateful for the support,” says Sylvia Sibilak. A personal organization folder has also been prepared in which social insurance numbers, telephone numbers of family members and other important data can be entered.

Andrea Salerno-Schwarz

Of course, arriving in a new city involves much more. In counseling sessions, Andrea Salerno-Schwarz likes to bring in her point of view as an immigrant: “I think it’s great that you can take courses on all sorts of topics at adult education centers in Germany for very little money, and I recommend it,” she reports. She says it’s important that researchers from other countries also get out of the science mindset and mingle with Berliners.

“We are in a position of trust,” says Andrea Salerno-Schwarz. Sometimes, international employees report that they have experienced restrictions in public agencies or in their private lives. It helps when the women from the Welcome Office can listen, offer support or give advice. The Welcome & Family Office also provides support when it comes to leaving, reminding people to terminate their leases and cell phone contracts and to deregister at the Citizens’ Registration Office.

Those who want to stay have good opportunities to do so

In general, researchers in publicly funded institutions such as the MDC are in a privileged position because they do not have to obtain a work permit. In addition, a new EU directive has improved conditions for researchers. For example, periods of residence in other EU countries are taken into account, and a change to an unlimited residence permit can be carried out earlier. Sylvia Sibilak observes that the number of those who decide to permanently live in Germany has increased in recent years. “This is also due to the fact that it has become easier for spouses to obtain a work permit,” she says. Brexit has also had an effect: Researchers from the UK who have been living in Germany for at least five years are automatically granted a permanent residence permit if they choose to apply for one.

The Welcome & Family Office has a number of plans for the future: “We are planning a survey among international employees, as well as regular mixers for all newcomers so that they can network with one another,” says Andrea Salerno-Schwarz. There will also be information leaflets, for example on working hours or childcare, so that it will be easier for newcomers to find their footing in German daily life in the future.

Text: Wiebke Peters


Further information

Welcome and Family Office of the MDC (only available in English)