When Dr. Fadi Alshalabi first decided to found Niuveristy, his intention was to address the needs of young, unemployed Arabic speaking newcomers in Germany. Having spent the majority of his life in the field of higher education, as a lecturer, in administration, and in the development of student career centers at all major universities in Syria, Fadi strongly believed in the transformative potential of education and learning. He may not have known it at the time, but these experiences would lead him several years later, to found a business in Germany in which his passion for education and digital innovation would collide.
Fast forward to 2014, Fadi left Syria and moved to Germany to accept a research position at the Technical University of Berlin. Having come with his wife and two children, re-settling the family was his main priority next to research. It was not until a chance encounter with some of his former students from Damascus University that Fadi began to broaden his vision. The stories of anxiety, boredom and frustration shared by each of his former students about not being able to find a decent job, exposed the harsh realities of many refugees living in Germany. Even those with university degrees, not to mention the students that had to flee before graduating, were finding it extremely challenging to access the German labour market. According to statistics from the Bundesagentur für Arbeit in January 2018, 482,000 people with a refugee background were registered as job seeking or unemployed and 411,000 as underemployed. 84% of asylum seekers in 2016 were under the age of 35 and 71% considered to lack formal post-secondary education or vocational training.
Stories of youth unemployment or underemployment were not particularly new to Fadi. According to a number of studies, including by the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa are the highest in the world. They have continued to rise over the past 10 years reaching 28.2% and 30.5% in 2014 respectively. But now we were talking about Germany, a country with one of the strongest economies and at 6.1% in 2017, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. Upon further fieldwork, Fadi began to realise that many of the young Syrian newcomers had academic experience, but lacked more technical skills and certificates in fields relevant to the local labour market. Acquiring these skills in Germany would involve language, financial and other bureaucratic barriers. There must be an easier and quicker way, he thought.
In 2017, Niuversity was launched as the first platform on which students can learn professional skills online while interacting with a live Arabic speaking teacher.
As the name suggests, Niuversity’s mission is to offer a new way of learning beyond traditional university studies. Their goal is to address the high unemployment rates among Arabic speaking youth, by equipping them with the professional skills and certificates necessary to participate in and even create jobs in today’s labour market. The trick? Niuversity makes learning more accessible by conducting courses online, removing competition with local German students and most importantly, by offering back-up support in Arabic. According to Fadi and his team, guidance in students’ mother tongue language is what online education is lacking – all the big platforms are in English, there is no Arabic equivalent.
“I want to make education borderless. I don’t want real borders or other barriers like language to stand between anyone and her or his learning.”
If people could access an online platform on which they could acquire professional skills the labour market is asking for, they could even bypass university and find or create jobs more quickly. Niuversity is now being developed to target young, Arabic speaking learners in Europe and the Middle East.
Fadi is just one of many newcomer entrepreneurs using his past and present experiences to create new solutions for societal challenges in places he calls home. He is also an alumni of Ideas in Motion, now called SINGA Business Lab, which is the first business incubator to be co-created with and for newcomer entrepreneurs in Berlin. The five-month program created by SINGA Deutschland, accompanies participants from business idea to operation by offering workshop modules, mentoring and networking events all with Berlin-based entrepreneurs.
By promoting concepts like newcomer entrepreneurship, SINGA is also exploring new approaches to integration in general. Rather than focusing on how immigrants and refugees can adapt themselves to fit in to a supposedly fixed and unchanging local society, SINGA prefers to focus on how these individuals can realise their talents and passions, allowing them to contribute to a more innovative and cohesive society. In fact, using a transcultural lens, SINGA views integration as an eternal process in which all members of society are negotiating their roles and rights depending on class, gender, age, race, religion etc. Looking at integration beyond the context of migration, allows one to think past the dichotomy of us and them. It exposes the limitations of viewing refugees as guests, beneficiaries and passive receivers. Without this approach, SINGA never would have met and worked with Fadi – the entrepreneur.
Sima Gatea, Co-Founder SINGA Deutschland.
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If you want to learn more about Fadi’s journey and Niuveristy, feel free to check out his website or to contact him directly:
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FES Contact: Felix Braunsdorf, Policy Officer for Migration and Development
Department/Section: Globale Politik und Entwicklung
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