Perfect match: website gives academic refugees chance to connect

German professor Carmen Bachmann used template of a dating site to allow users to network with other people in their field

Carmen Bachmann founded an academic network to help refugees entering the academic system.




Carmen Bachmann said: ‘We want to make people feel like they are staying in touch with the academic world.’
Photograph: Martin Jehnichen for the Guardian

Perfect match: website gives academic refugees chance to connect

German professor Carmen Bachmann used template of a dating site to allow users to network with other people in their field

When a record number of asylum seekers and refugees arrived in Germany two years ago, Carmen Bachmann was one of many in the country who felt compelled to help the newcomers settle in.

She did not rush down to greet them with welcome signs or pledge to volunteer at refugee camps. Instead Bachmann, 41, a Leipzig University professor, turned into something of a matchmaker. She created a website, Chance for Science, to connect refugee academics with German counterparts across a broad range of disciplines.

The site uses the template of a dating service and allows users to register as a refugee academic or a German professor or researcher, stating their location and field of study, so people can be matched together with others doing similar work. There are now 720 registered users, including 224 refugees.

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The links made via the website could lead to a job, although Bachmann said that was not the main aim. “The primary thinking is to encourage work collaboration, the sharing of ideas or to help refugee scientists gain access to the latest research. Alongside it, we have also been running educational workshops for the past year with government funding. They help newcomers understand how the German academic system works,” she said.

“We also want to make people feel like they are staying in touch with the academic world. Being an academic is part of their identity and when refugees come here they lose that. It is important for them to be in an environment where they can be a specialist again and people recognise them as such. People can come together and share ideas, discuss and create networks.”

As a result of the project, Bachmann is now working with Günay Karli, 45, a computer scientist who specialises in artificial intelligence. He worked at Fatih University in Turkey before it was one of several institutions closed down by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over alleged links to the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen and an attempted political coup.

Carmen Bachmann with Günay Karli, a computer scientist from Turkey whi found a job in her department.


Carmen Bachmann with Günay Karli, a computer scientist from Turkey whi found a job in her department. Photograph: Martin Jehnichen for the Guardian

Karli, who arrived in Germany from Bosnia three months ago, said: “I was surprised to hear about the project because it is so selfless … This project is important for refugees because we do not have anything related to our academic fields or system. We don’t know anyone who knows how things work and we have a desire to continue our research, learn and to share ideas.”

Bachmann and Karli are working together on taxation. One aspect they are looking at is whether it is possible to predict the future performance of a company and its key performance indicator (KPI) by analysing social media. Karli is helping with data analysis and using computer software.

While Karli waits to hear the result of his asylum application, he is happy to continue doing academic work. Although he cannot take paid employment, everything he does will be useful for his portfolio of work.

“I am a refugee but this is only a small part of who I am. I am also still an academic,” he said. “No matter what situation I find myself in I have to continue with my research still. We cannot stop our brains from working.”

Bachmann and her small team recently held a conference, Academics on the Flight, where eight refugees spoke on stage about their work and others presented posters. “Lots of the refugees have no affiliations any more and Chance for Science is an intermediate affiliation, so people feel they can belong to something, even if their home university does not exist any more,” she said.

Bachmann got a year’s worth of money from the government to run the workshops and conference but it runs out in December. “I would like more funding as it has become a second full-time job for me … I need support because there is lots of potential in this idea and it is growing fast. It could also work for other professions.”

She said the biggest challenge of the project had been overcoming the bureaucracy of the German system. “I did not ask permission from anyone to set up the website, just the president of the university, because it would have taken too long to do it officially. These are people who would have nothing to do and I wanted to start it quickly.”

Her inspiration came from a chance meeting with an academic at a refugee camp. “I met a man and all he had with him was his diploma. He was so happy someone was paying attention to it because, understandably, the volunteers there were just making sure everyone had shelter and food.

“From that moment it became very personal for me and it helped me realise what being an academic is. I have learned just as much from this process as those I have been helping.”

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