Meet the Iranian aquaculturist refugee who found a new home in Germany

Amirhossein Karamyar fled an oppressive political climate to eventually join a research institution in Bremerhaven.
Denise Hruby is a writer and editor in Austria.

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Amirhossein Karamyar looks at a jar containing seaweeds.

Amirhossein Karamyar observes seaweeds at the Alfred Wegener Institute.Credit: Esther Horvath/Alfred Wegener Institute

In Iran, Amirhossein Karamyar lived life in fear. He was born and raised there, studied fish farming (aquaculture) at a branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran and worked as an aquaculturist on scientific research projects. But the 31-year-old scientist says that the oppressive political climate made him leave. “It’s a dictatorship. It was too hard for me to stay there. I was very afraid of persecution and arrest.”

Karamyar is reluctant to say too much more about why he left, but the German government has officially recognized him as a refugee and has allowed him to stay. He arrived in Germany in 2015; that year, the European Union (EU) saw an increase in asylum applications from Iran by more than 140%, from 10,905 in 2014 to 26,550 in 2015.

Iran’s 40-year-old theocratic government is known for its human-rights violations. Hundreds of people are executed each year for offences that include adultery, homosexuality and insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

Scientists and people with academic backgrounds from all over the world have risked their lives on arduous, dangerous journeys over land and sea to find a new home in Germany. The country has taken a proactive approach to helping them get back on their feet through a number of programmes and initiatives.

Karamyar was one of the beneficiaries, even if his new beginning wasn’t quite what he had expected. “Everything was chaotic. I didn’t know where to begin” he says. “I didn’t know what was expected in public situations, how the rules worked. I had no contacts here — no family, friends or network that could show me how to fit in.”

After he registered as a refugee, he was given accommodation in the town of Bad Fallingbostel, and then moved to Hildesheim, a city of about 100,000 people in Lower Saxony, at the beginning of 2016. On arriving, Karamyar says he underestimated how difficult it would be to start a new life. For a start, he had been told that because he already spoke some English, he’d be able to pick up German easily. “I thought they’d have a few words that are different [from English],” he says. “But then I realized it’s an entirely different language. It’s very hard. The words, grammar, everything is different.”

Roland Koch, a spokesperson for Germany’s largest scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association, says that “we saw how strong the movement of refugees was, and we said, as scientists, we have a responsibility toward other scientists and qualified people”. All of the major research organizations in Germany — the Helmholtz Association, the Fraunhofer Society, the Leibniz Association and the Max Planck Society — as well as the grant-giving German Research Foundation (DFG) have established funds specifically to help refugees with a scientific background in response to the migrant crisis that began in 2015.

Refugee crisis

More than one million people made their way to EU countries in 2015, leaving behind war, conflict, persecution and economic hardship. While many nations were trying to keep them out, Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, extended a de-facto invitation to refugees. “We can manage this,” she said. The 890,000 migrants who arrived in Germany that year were, for the most part, welcomed with open arms. “Clearly, among so many people, there has to be a lot of potential, and a lot of people with a scientific background. We didn’t want that to lie idle,” Koch says.

Karamyar had arrived on his own, without any family or friends and with no support network. He quickly found German friends who helped him to better understand the culture and customs, and practise the language. His goal was to find a job as an aquaculturist, but this was difficult because he was still waiting for his work permit and engineering diplomas to be translated and approved by the German authorities. With the help of a friend, he found a volunteer organization that was re-introducing salmon to the River Leine near Hildesheim. Although the work wasn’t paid, Karamyar enjoyed raising the fish, releasing them back into the river and learning German words from his co-workers.

Shreya Balhara at Scholars at Risk, a US charity that protects academic freedom across the world, says that Germany has shown great openness in integrating those with a scientific background. Short-term placements are often a good start. “The scholars we speak with want to be recognized first and foremost as scholars, that is their identity. Doing so helps a lot,” she says.

She does say that disappointment can be found in Germany, too. Many scholars will not be able to find the positions they were hoping for, and often their degrees are not recognized in Germany.

About two years after his arrival, Karamyar’s new German friends, including a local scientist, helped him to send an application to the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven. By then, he had all of his diplomas in addition to his volunteer work experience. During the interview, he was able to impress with the German he’d acquired. With the financial support of the Helmholtz refugee initiative, he secured a one-month internship at the organization. After that, Karamyar was given a one-year contract with AWI’s technology and knowledge transfer division. “It’s like a dream. I got so much support and help, and this is 100% what I want to do,” he says.

Karamyar has quickly adapted to German culture. “The standards here are much better, the results more exact, and the technology is also better,” he says. But generally, his job resembles the one he had in Tehran: making sure that the water temperature, salinity and other conditions are just right for scientists’ projects.

In his personal life, he has found happiness as well: in May 2018, he married another Iranian, and the pair plan to have children. But first, he needs job stability to ensure that he can provide for a family, he says. He’s on the right track: when his one-year contract was up at the end of last year, AWI renewed it. “I think in a few years, Germany could be number one in aquaculture. I think we could be the best,” he says. Hopefully, he says, he will help the country get there.

Nature 567, S46-S47 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00914-3

This article is part of Nature Career Guide: Germany, an editorially independent supplement. Advertisers have no influence over the content.

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