LettersOutside the Tower

Giving refugees a chance

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Science  19 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6339, pp. 699
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan1449

I am walking through a refugee camp in my city of Leipzig, Germany. The camp is a temporary home to more than 1000 people who are seeking asylum from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Albania. The people in the camp spend their days waiting, hoping something will happen that allows them to move forward with their lives. The hall I walk through feels like an overcrowded waiting room, except instead of chairs, it has hundreds of beds, one next to the other. I am searching for refugees with an academic background. Scientists who are kept away from their work can easily fall behind in their fields, and I would like to help.

I am a professor of taxation, trained not to save lives but to save money for companies. But when Germany was flooded with refugees, among them scientists and professors, I decided to create a platform that connects refugee and German academics (www.chance-for-science.de). The site was incredibly popular—with volunteers. Yet not a single academic refugee registered. So I decided to visit the camp and search for refugee scientists myself.

As I walk through the crowds, I meet craftsmen, farmers, and families who have lost their homes. Most of them do not speak any German or English. People are confused about why I am here, and I begin to feel helpless. But then, I finally find a Syrian man who understands me. He is a polite, inconspicuously dressed, middle-aged man. His wife stands next to him. When I explain the purpose of my visit, he says, “Help me, I have nothing left but my diploma.” I am bewildered and touched. He could bring only essentials on his journey, and his diploma was among them. I talk with him and tell him about the website. Then I move on to meet others.

With the help of personal outreach, the Chance-for-Science site now has more than 150 refugee users who have a way to connect with fellow scientists. I hope more scientists will open their arms to refugee academics. We can make extraordinary contributions at a personal level by recognizing refugee professors and scientists as professionals and thereby giving back at least a small part of their identity. Treat them like colleagues: Invite them to your institution, give them access to scientific material, and exchange research ideas. If you can't reach them in person, use Skype or write letters. It is easy. It does not cost money, just a little time. You only need to do it.

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