Review: Berlin needs you (but why?)

©Barbara Dietl

Why is immigration important? The debate takes many angles. There’s the demographic argument, that developed countries with low birth rates and aging populations need bodies to maintain the replacement rate. There’s the globalization take, that the movement of people in all forms is increasingly inevitable and contributes to global competitiveness and 21st century skills. The moral or even religious spin, emphasizing human dignity, charity, and an obligation for prosperous nations to help those more needy. Yet few arguments are as pervasive as the economic one: that immigrants fill labor shortages, tend to be more innovative, start businesses and create jobs, pay taxes, and contribute to the social welfare net (yes, often more than they “take away”).

It is this economic argument that is often relied upon as a point of mutual agreement that immigrants are needed. Maybe not “wanted”, but at least needed.

This argument extends beyond newcomers to the 2nd and 3rd generations. In countries like Germany where the history of immigration has been primarily low skilled, children of migrants still face numerous linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic challenges. These are exacerbated by a stratified education system that is associated with lower educational attainment, limited access to higher education, and fewer chances for economic mobility. Germany fares particularly poorly in this arena: it has the OECD’s largest performance disparity between native and immigrant students and is one of the only countries where 2nd generation students perform worse on international assessments than the 1st generation.

Enter Berlin braucht dich! (Berlin needs you!), a program that works to improve the educational and economic outcomes of students with migrant backgrounds. Launched by the state of Berlin as part of its overall integration plan in 2006, it aims to increase the number of these students entering the public sector by 25% by bridging schools with the professional world. It is coordinated by BQN, das Berufliche Qualifizierungsnetzwerk für Migrantinnen und Migranten in Berlin (the Vocational Qualification Network for Immigrants in Berlin) and is funded by the state of Berlin.

The program works in cycles: a day-long introduction to a business or organization for 7th graders, a week-long internship for 8th graders, 3-week internships for 9th graders, and training and application days for 10th graders. Participating schools help their students find training spots with an online matching tool. Spots are currently offered in Berlin’s public sector, public companies, and the metal and electrical industries, though BQN is working toward expanding the program to include small businesses. The program has also evolved from a focus on the vocational training system (Duales System – working and learning in a company) to more dual study opportunities (Duales Studium – studying and working simultaneously).

Mitri Sirin, a German TV reporter of Turkish-Syrian background, moderates the 5th Berlin braucht dich! consortium meeting in June. He highlights the culture of low expectations and need for more varied training opportunities for migrant students during a panel on diversity politics. The idea that any kid in the 7th grade would know what they wanted to be when they grow up is a fairy tale, he scoffs. Of course I was funneled into a vocational internship with other kids like me. I was still able to make something or other of myself, he adds to chuckles from the audience, but not all are so lucky.

Berlin braucht dich! Consortium Meeting June 2014

Berlin braucht dich! Consortium Meeting June 2014 ©BQN Berlin

When the panel concludes, a group of giggling students race out from behind the stage to plaster black paper on the windows and switch off the lights. It’s a bit eerie to be cloaked in darkness with pop music blaring before 11am, but soon enough the black-light theater performance has the audience tapping their feet and grinning widely. While entirely up for interpretation, the images of a ball being passed around between two sets of hands and a student struggling in a white sheet before becoming a colorful butterfly suggests a story-line of transnationalism and diversity.

The theater program is a kind of “empowerment action”, explains Robert Westermann, PR Manager of Berlin braucht dich! The group comes from one of the 32 schools we cooperate with… students from this school also take part in our internships.

Later that morning, we make sure to join the small workshop where the same students share their experiences. I’ve been in Germany for 2 years and can’t speak German that well, but black-light theater is like another language that I can speak to everyone, without having to actually say anything, shares one Iranian girl.  In theater you have to learn to control yourself, but you can also be free, says another. Theater has taught me how to be loud, exclaims a third.

Schule am Schloss students post-performance. Source: Berlin braucht dich!

Schule am Schloss students take a bow post-performance ©BQN Berlin

In my view, the most innovative aspect of Berlin braucht dich! is that schools and companies are working together on a constant and sustainable level, describes Robert. This stable network makes it possible to operationalize key ideas around “intercultural openness”, by changing structures, processes, and mentalities. 

Berlin braucht dich! has experienced marked success in its 8 years of operation. Since 2006, the ratio of trainees in the public sector with a migration background has been steadily on the rise and by 2009 had doubled to 16.9%. By 2013, every 5th trainee (20.5%) in the public sector and public companies had a migration background.

Yet it is the emphasis on mutually understood and implemented “intercultural openness” that implies Berlin braucht dich! is about more than Euro signs. In addition to securing a more intercultural workforce through sheer numbers, BQN offers free diversity trainings for partner schools and businesses. Migration is acknowledged not only as a reality, but as a key factor that contributes both “to our quality of life now and the sustainability of our future.” While the demand for such trainings has been low on the school side, BQN has implemented many with employees from their partner companies.


Moderator and TV reporter Mitri Sirin (middle) with theater group students ©BQN Berlin

The path to a truly intercultural workforce is still laden with hurdles. Recent studies on Germany show that prejudice and hiring discrimination against students with migrant backgrounds is alive and well. Access to higher education and many employment opportunities is entirely off the table, as a disproportionate number – about half – of these students are funneled into the lowest vocational school track. As one of the business representatives at the meeting explained to the theater group, If any of you came into an interview at our offices, you would do great. But to get to the interview stage, you would still have to pass the entrance test first, which focuses on German, math, and logic. 

Challenges such as these require integrated policy approaches. Approaches that distinguish the actors involved and hold them accountable for their roles in changing the structures, norms, and mentalities that fuel these challenges. Approaches that extend beyond just the economic argument and are brave enough to acknowledge everyone’s role in fostering an intercultural and inclusive society that values the potential of each individual. In short, Berlin doesn’t just need you. It needs all of us.

– By Sophia Burton

Thank you to Robert Westermann, PR Manager of Berlin braucht dich!, for inviting us to the consortium meeting and providing information for this article.

For more information on Berlin braucht dich!, check out their German website here. Info in English can be found here.

For another article from us on Berlin based programs for students with migrant backgrounds, click here.


  1. super article, sophia! the idea about operationalizing intercultural openness and inclusivity is key, i think. the only way this goes from idea to practice to ‘just the norm’ is through government action such as this. makes me proud to be a resident of this city!

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