Syrian children walk around the camp grounds during a sandstorm

Refugees and engineers: finding work in a foreign country

Image credit: Getty images

Some refugees have impressive qualifications and experience, but they still struggle to find work. What help is on offer to them?

In 2015, Thaís Roque, an Oxford biomedical engineering PhD student, decided she ought to do something to help refugees. As a result, she set up the Oxford Students Refugee Campaign (OXSRC), which will provide scholarships for students fleeing war and persecution with funding from current Oxford students. Roque’s initiative is one of several schemes and organisations that are helping refugee students, academics and professionals – including engineers – to continue their professional lives after the trauma of war and displacement.

So far, more than half of the students at the University of Oxford have decided to contribute £1 a month through their colleges. “We have over 11,000 students participating, so they have pledged £240,000 for the next two years,” says Roque. She adds that although many UK universities have pledged their support and paid lip-service to providing scholarships, she hasn’t heard of any being taken up by students because “people are not realising the barriers that [refugee students] face”.

The financial plight of refugees usually means they will need more than just the waiving of fees, and Roque says refugees overseas often don’t have credit cards and aren’t able to even cover the £50 cost of applying to a university. One of the things OXSRC is planning is a mentoring scheme for refugee applicants.

Historically the UK has a record of helping refugee academics. CARA – the Council for At-Risk Academics, originally known as the Academic Assistance Council – was set up in 1933 by William Beveridge, director of the London School of Economics and future founder of the National Health Service, as a response to the rising number of academics fleeing Nazi Germany. This wasn’t an easy task. There were significant anti-refugee sentiments expressed at that time, but the campaign was boosted by Albert Einstein who spoke in support of academic refugees at the Royal Albert Hall in London. By 1939 the organisation had raised £100,000 and had supported over 2,600 scholars.

CARA is still providing support to academics, particularly now to Syrians. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the civil war began in 2011, with about one million granted asylum in Europe. CARA has an established network of UK universities, now numbering 108, who have committed in principle to providing employment opportunities to at-risk scholars. According to CARA executive director Stephen Wordsworth, the organisation is now busier than at any time since the 1930s.

Working alongside CARA is the international organisation Scholars at Risk (SAR), based at New York University, which also assists academics in danger. European director Sinead O’Gorman says SAR’s caseload has also dramatically increased: “We are now receiving 65 applications per month. Our caseload is at around 560, which represents scholars we assist who are currently in academic positions, those seeking positions, those whose applications to SAR are pending, and wrongfully imprisoned scholars for whom we are advocating.” SAR has recently experienced an upturn in requests for assistance from Turkey, following the August 2016 failed military coup, which has led to purges within Turkey’s universities.

Syrian engineer Hassan Aljoudi is one of those who have received assistance from SAR. Aljoudi was born in the city of Homs, studied civil engineering in Damascus and in 1994 completed a PhD in water resource engineering in Poland. Back in Syria, he taught at Al Baath university in Homs and is also a published poet and children’s book author. “I and my family decided to leave in 2012 because of the serious danger threatening our lives. We moved to a lot of countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and now we are in the Netherlands,” explains Aljoudi. With the help of SAR, he has secured a research fellowship at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, working on water-related engineering projects.

Aljoudi says so far his experiences have been very positive: “Life in the Netherlands has been great, people are very tolerant, they accept our difference in culture, and everyone has helped a lot. The university has had a huge effect on my life since it made all my family feel safer and welcome.” But he says his experiences are probably not typical of other refugees, “I didn’t apply for asylum, I didn’t wait months in camps, I don’t have any experience with any of the hard steps Syrians had to take here in the Netherlands, for example seeking work, waiting tons of time for a house from the municipality. I know I have had a lot of benefits and this all goes back to SAR.”

Many of his previous colleagues from Syria have also left, “they’re all now in various countries: one in the United States, three are in Germany, one in Holland, five in Jordan, one in Yemen, and unfortunately two have been killed in Syria,” he says. Most of those in Europe are currently not working and there is no work for those who remained in Syria. He says “the war is still destroying more than buildings, and that’s why the civil engineers aren’t useful now.”

Beyond academia, many engineers are receiving refugee status in the UK and are looking for work. Sheila Heard is managing director of the agency Transitions, which is a social enterprise helping such professionals. “We came out of closures of public services in 2010. When the recession hit, one of the first savings the government made was to shut down all funded refugee services,” explains Heard. “We are the only specialist agency supporting refugee engineers; there is no one else.” Heard says there has been a big upsurge in Syrian engineers, which isn’t surprising, but the agency also deals with people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, and Libya.

Since 2011, Transitions has worked with about 150 eligible refugees in London. “We’ve had 51 per cent successful job outcomes and well over half are engineers,” says Heard. She and her Transitions colleagues have worked with several different job sectors but says so far the engineering sector seems to be the most responsive to employing refugees, “particularly in construction, there is a corporate realisation that diversity is good for business”.

For those looking for work, the barriers can be high. “Most of them have no recent experience because obviously if they are asylum seekers they are not allowed to work and that can go on for 10 years and very few of them have any idea who the local employers are,” says Heard. “Likewise very few employers know that refugees [once granted official permission] can work and that they have a biometric card as identification.” She adds unconscious bias and discrimination can make it “a very distressing experience and disempowering”.

The Jobcentre Plus system often makes matters worse by perpetuating the idea that unemployment is the jobseeker’s fault, without any real understanding of the professional job market.

Gaining professional status can also be an issue. “It’s very difficult for people to engage with the registration process without recent experience,” says Heard. “The IET has been really helpful and commissioned three workshops from us,” but in general, she adds, “professional bodies don’t have the services to really engage with unemployed refugee engineers, unfortunately.”

Transition now has a small Lottery grant to fund an engineering CPE manager to work with a group of six engineers to help them identify their transferable skills and learn about how the registration process works.

One strategy that Heard is very keen to follow is that of internships for refugees who have engineering skills but no UK experience. She is working with several companies to design bespoke schemes.

One early adopter has been Arcadis, a global design and consultancy firm for natural and built assets. “We were asked by our European board to look at ways that we could support refugees,” says Victoria Ferguson, head of international HR. “And as part of that in the UK we really felt what we could offer was meaningful work placements.” Arcadis began working with Transitions, and in August 2016 launched a six-month paid internship programme with a first cohort of 10 refugee engineers. The scheme also includes a two-week structured induction and weekly English language training.

Basheer Youssef is one of the engineers on the Arcadis scheme. He originally studied mechanical engineering in Aleppo and had been working at a power station in his home city Banias specialising in fire prevention. He left Syria to work in Dubai in 2009 but by 2015 future employment prospects there started to look poor due to restrictions on foreign work permits. In April 2015 he came to the UK on a temporary visa to look at the job market and his Dubai work permit was revoked and his work contract terminated. At this point he and his family sought asylum in the UK. He received permission to work in September 2015 and started looking for a job.

His initial attempts were not fruitful, but after connecting with Transitions he got advice on rewriting his CV. “When I did this, I got a lot of interviews,” says Youssef. But he then found himself in a ‘catch-22’ situation of being technically over-qualified but lacking UK experience, and interviews did not convert into jobs. He did eventually secure a position with another engineering firm but was then offered the internship with Arcadis, which would provide him with training and an entry point into a UK mechanical engineering consultancy role.

“I found it totally different from our Middle East culture,” says Youssef. Refugees often experience culture shock when they move into the UK work environment. Heard says in her experience the ease of integration varies: “It depends on the person; there are people who have worked in multidisciplinary international projects for decades and for them it’s totally familiar and then there are people for whom the UK workplace is really a very foreign place.”

Youssef says most of the differences have been positive. He has found attitudes to hierarchies were different and to personal responsibility. “[In Arcadis], they don’t care if you come early or you went early. They give you this task and trust you to finish. They give you full responsibility and full flexibility to finish the job,” he says.

So far, Arcadis has felt the programme to be a very positive experience for the company. “I’ve never met a bunch of harder-working, keen-to- learn individuals in 12 years of recruitment,” says Bill Maynard, head of recruitment. “And that’s the beauty of what they bring to the business, just the desire to learn the desire to be part of something.”

Maynard adds that given the current severe skills shortages in most technical disciplines, Arcadis is always looking to find skilled people who might have been overlooked: “Some of them have been here a long time, they have great CVs, lots of relevant experience in their home countries, but nobody was giving them the chance.”

Ferguson says that after the six months the firm hopes to be able to keep on some of the interns. “If we kept over 50 per cent I’d be over the moon,” she adds, “but obviously we are a business and need to be commercially viable.”

Arcadis now hopes to repeat the programme beyond London. “I would highly recommend it for other organisations, but doing it properly - really invest in making a difference to peoples lives,” says Maynard.

The current Syrian refugee crisis poses particular challenges to Europe’s academic and professional communities. Sheila Heard says of the 10,000 refugees given asylum in the UK a year, “25 per cent of those are highly skilled people – academics, doctors and engineers – and most of them are now working in NCP car parks.”

Having an engineering training may be an advantage for some, but Youssef says many of his former Syrian colleagues have not found work. “Last week I was in Sweden to see friends, and I was thankful I came to the UK and not Sweden or Germany, because they have been there two years and haven’t got jobs and don’t hope to find jobs.”

Aljoudi says being an engineer was helpful in his case, but that it may be generally easier for non-professional workers because they don’t need to be as proficient in the language the country speaks.

Heard says in the UK not enough is being done to help professional refugees: “We still have too many people that we can’t place.” She is asking more companies to think about providing three-month paid internships.

O’Gorman also says that while Scholars at Risk is proud of the effort that UK universities are making, “there are always more refugees and scholars looking for temporary positions than we have universities to host.”

Back in Oxford, Roque expects to offer the first Oxford Students Refugee Campaign scholarships in 2018 and says she will not be surprised to receive applications for engineering degrees. “If you ask most of the [potential refugee] students what they wanted to study, they are going to say either medicine or engineering or some kind of science.”

Many people have been surprised that an engineer became involved in such a politically charged issue, Roque says, but “as an engineer you think differently – you are there to solve problems, that’s what we are trained for and I think that was crucial in terms of how I approached this campaign”. 

Case study: The voice of experience

Many of the experiences of refugees coming to the UK today are familiar to those who went through it in the past. Professor Agnes Kaposi, emeritus professor in electrical engineering at South Bank University, fled Hungary in autumn 1956 during the brief revolution that saw 200,000 refugees fleeing the country before Russian tanks arrived.

She and her husband John, both young engineers, had escaped by hiding in a lorry carrying medical supplies and crossing the border into Austria at night through barbed wire and crater-filled exploded minefields. They ended up in Paris with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, just about surviving with the help of friends. They decided to try and find work in the UK, even with their imperfect English and started responding to job adverts in journals.

They were both eventually taken on by engineering company Pye, based in Cambridge. Kaposi, who had been working on designing the first sampling oscilloscope in Hungary, says, “having had a first class degree and having a sophisticated project and interesting start in my career in Hungary, my first job [at Pye] was to design an electric fence”. On top of this they faced intense culture shock – perhaps greater than anything refugees experience in today’s globalised world. “We were completely unprepared for the way this country operated,” she says.

The pair quickly moved to roles in the Ericsson telecommunications laboratory in Nottingham, helping to design the telephone exchange. As with many refugees, they found a mentor to help them navigate their new lives. “We had the very good fortune of having John Pollard as head of the laboratory,” explains Kaposi. “I don’t know how our professional life would have been had it not been for him.” He supported them with the sorts of things most professionals take for granted, such as opening a bank account and buying a house (neither possible in a communist country).

Pollard also helped them to become recognised with their professional bodies. This was not a straightforward process as their degrees from the prestigious Technical University of Budapest (now the Budapest University of Technology and Economics) were unknown to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Whilst Agnes was young enough to join as a graduate member, her husband’s professional membership took two years to be verified and became a test case. “One of the problems was that many of the professors and colleagues [in Hungary] had left the country, and those who hadn’t were not particularly keen to accommodate requests for certification and information from people who had left and were ‘criminals’, she says.

Kaposi’s career soon flourished and she eventually became head of the electrical engineering department at South Bank University. She says as her career developed, the challenges of being a rare female engineer became more of an issue than being a refugee, but the feelings of loss and dislocation experienced when you are forced to leave family and friends are always there.

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