Why the effort is worthwhile

Professor Ulrike Freitag and Professor Arnulf Quadt host Philipp Schwartz Fellows. In this interview, they speak about the challenges of integration and bureaucratic hurdles.

Doppelporträt: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag und Prof. Dr. Arnulf Quadt
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Philipp Schwartz Initiative

Their home countries are blighted by war, their freedom of research is curtailed or they are persecuted: in many parts of the world, scientists and scholars are in danger. The Philipp Schwartz Initiative helps researchers who have fled their countries to find their feet at German universities and research institutions.

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Humboldt Foudation: Professor Freitag, you are the Director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient and teach Islamic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. What motivated you to host a threatened researcher at your university?
It all came about because of a Turkish colleague’s political involvement. He was active in the networks of the Turkish peace initiative and very quickly knew which researchers were under threat in his home country. He told our institute about them and we then asked him to forward us the researchers’ CVs and possibly also a research proposal. Before the Philipp Schwartz Initiative started, we used our own means to support the researchers.

What about in your case, Professor Quadt?
As an experimental elementary particle physicist at the University of Göttingen, I work in a very international environment. Over the years, my research activities inevitably meant that I worked with doctoral students and postdocs from politically unstable countries. I was also the Erasmus representative, mentoring students from all over the world. As a result, it always affected me very personally when I listened to the news, wondering whether the colleagues and their families were safe.

It is a cultural and scientific challenge.
Ulrike Freitag, Director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, and Professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin

How do you decide whether you can mentor someone at your institute, Professor Freitag?
Ideally, we support people with whom we have already had academic contacts in the past – because experience has taught us that this improves their professional prospects dramatically when the Philipp Schwartz sponsorship comes to an end. The ways of working and addressing academic questions differ quite significantly in the various countries. We mentored a female colleague here from Libya, for example, who not only had to go through the painful process of translating an Arabic doctoral thesis into English but also had to rework it so that it conformed with the usual academic standards here. It wasn’t essentially a linguistic problem, but a cultural and scientific challenge. If someone has taught exclusively in Turkish at a university in Eastern Anatolia, I wouldn’t have the confidence to mediate long-term prospects for them beyond the scope of a potentially successful application to the Philipp Schwartz Initiative. I don’t know what it’s like in physics, but in our field, it can be very difficult to find a foothold.

Arnulf Quadt:
The Syrian scientist I mentored at the institute had expertise in an area of particle physics that we didn’t have. So, her lectures enhanced the quality of training we offer at the University of Göttingen, which was very positive for us. We tried to embed her in our research as quickly as possible. And that worked well, even though it meant she had to change her focus and complete a training programme intended for young doctoral candidates – just much faster. Within a year, she authored a work of her own, went on to supervise Bachelor, Master and Ph.D. students and take responsibility for advancing research projects. However, I think the fact that it all worked out so well was probably the exception.

In the natural sciences, to what extent can the Philipp Schwartz Initiative be a stepping stone to a life after persecution, Professor Quadt? If a junior scientist at doctoral or post-doctoral level comes here, funding programmes like the Philipp Schwartz Initiative can be extremely helpful in providing the impetus to embark on a scientific career on an equal footing. However, if a colleague comes here who is already a senior scientist, effectively at professorial level, then it gets difficult when sponsorship comes to an end. To establish yourself firmly in a competitive system within two to four years so that you can assert yourself against scientists who are 20 years younger, speak the language and are familiar with the system, such as third-party funding, that is really incredibly challenging. Moreover, in our field of experimental particle physics, research projects are funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research based exclusively on scientific content. The researchers’ biographies are irrelevant. The German Research Foundation, on the other hand, has special programmes for individuals who hold refugee status, and this enables us to employ scientists who are unable to return to their own countries.

What is it like in the humanities, Professor Freitag?
Of course, the foreign researchers come with high expectations and have to recognise that in historical studies, the transition is very difficult if you are not fluent in German. We provide support in the form of intensive coaching in formulating applications to organisations like the DFG or Humboldt Foundation. When the Philipp Schwartz sponsorship comes to an end, the concrete question of a residence permit often occurs. When they apply for asylum the researchers have to go through the whole process, including the several-month mandatory residence period during which they are not allowed to work. This requirement to some extent destroys everything they have been building up during the course of sponsorship. In this case, we at the institute try to write the kinds of letters for the researchers that encourage immigration authorities to allow them to stay even if they don’t currently have a job. For support like this we employ a part-time research associate. She accompanies the researchers to the Immigration Office, for example.

A lot of things end up on my desk. But I see it as part of my responsibility to deal with them, and I am happy to do it.
Arnulf Quadt, Professor of Physics, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

It sounds rewarding but also challenging to be a mentor. How do you see it, Professor Quadt? It’s always about the fate of individuals and often about the exception to the exception – whether we are talking about the authorities recognising an Arab name that is sometimes written one way, and sometimes another, or about a child who’s having problems at school. A lot of things end up on my desk. But I see it as part of my responsibility to deal with them, and I am happy to do it. And, accordingly, thanks are due to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for the Philipp Schwartz Initiative because it provides funding for researchers who deserve it both professionally and as individuals.