I know what it feels like to be the subject of a global debate, and so do 11 million people like me. As the world continues to wrestle with the challenges of accepting and assimilating the millions of Syrian refugees migrating into Western nations, the luckiest of us are working hard to make new lives in our new homes.
Five years ago, I could never have imagined I’d be living and working in Germany. Here’s how I got here and what I’ve learned along the way.
We have a saying in Syria that loosely translates as, “Don’t only look at the people on top of the mountain. Look at everyone around you, because one day, you will not be what you are today.”
You could say that my family and I once lived close to the “top of the mountain.” After I graduated and got my bachelor’s degree in computer science, I joined our family business. We owned several restaurants in Damascus and employed dozens of people. But we always had devoted employees because we tried to treat all of them equally.
Four years ago, things changed quickly. I was forced to leave Syria for Lebanon, then Turkey, then Germany. I arrived alone and with little, so when I started at my current job after completing my master’s degree in business administration, I found myself on the other end of the hierarchy. In fact, it was my first job where I didn’t own the business. I didn’t know what to expect.
But to my relief, I found that everyone treated me fairly and equally. Being on the other end of the management structure for the first time in my life, this culture of equality really resonated with me. It empowered me to give my job everything I had, and I understood how motivating it is to be valued regardless of your level.
When I arrived in Germany, I knew virtually nothing about the German language or the country’s culture. I could communicate in English, but not knowing German restricted me from understanding customs and basic principles of living. For example, we don’t have a national postage service in Syria, so I didn’t know to expect my government ID card to arrive in the mail.
It might sound simple to some, but fluid communication helps you truly understand your surroundings. In my experience, learning to speak the local language has even shaped my personality here. I made it my first priority to learn German, and it’s meant everything to me. I made real friendships, joined groups, and interacted on a deeper level with my coworkers. Now that I’m fluent in German, the roles are reversed, and I’m teaching my colleagues Arabic.
Learning the language wasn’t only important in the most practical sense, though–there was a new language of business to pick up as well. I’ve found that every company, everywhere in the world, has its own values and principles that dictate how things are done. If you can’t become fluent in those, then you may find a job but probably won’t succeed in it. Once I started picking up German, I was able to tune into those subtleties, connecting more deeply with people inside my company to understand everything that was going on around me.
I was fortunate to find an employer that a special internship program for Middle Eastern refugees. When that internship ended, though, my chances for a full-time job were just about the same as everyone else. But when I got a full-time offer, I joined a team where I was the only person with a substantially different background was different from everyone else on my team.
That hasn’t put me at a disadvantage, though. Instead, my experiences have helped my team develop new ideas and new ways of thinking and vice versa; I’m working with some colleagues who have 20–30 years’ experience in our field, and learning from them as well.
I like to think that my perspective has helped our team become a little more innovative. Bringing people from diverse backgrounds leads to fresh ideas, which can lead to new products and new ways of thinking. While I’m burdened with memories of my past, they’ve shaped who I am today. So I don’t try and forget–I use my experiences to improve my future and all the people in my life who share a stake in it.
When I arrived in Germany, there was a lot that I didn’t know, but I still had a long-term plan to pursue an education in technology. And looking back, that decision helped set me up to succeed. I tried constantly to keep my dreams and goals squarely in front of my eyes, telling myself, “If I’m not working for it, I’m not getting it.” That plan kept me going when I felt isolated and challenged–first at school, then at work.
Planning is critical, I’ve learned, especially when faced with so much uncertainty about the future. It helps you identify what you want to accomplish in life, and provides clarity on what you need to do to get there. It also helped me stay focused and motivated when that was hardest.
I’ve now been in Germany for five years. I’m a software engineer at a large technology company. And I’m as firm a believer as ever in the kindness of humanity, and that anything is possible.
Ours is a world divided, in countless ways. But in business and in life, we can all contribute to narrowing those divisions, even if by degrees. Creating environments that motivate and value all employees is a foundation for success, both collective and individual. In organizations like that, contributions transcend culture. Great things can come from anywhere–however unexpected, and whatever the adversities. We just need to believe they can.
Adham Rchwani is a software engineer for SAP.