It was 2014 when Saleen Barkeel first came to the FrankfurtRheinMain region. To study, for work and for a social start-up: In this interview; the 29-year-old electrical engineer looks back on an eventful time in his life.

You came to Germany from Syria in 2014 to do your Master’s degree. To Oldenburg, to be precise?!

“Thanks to a grant from the Foreign Office, I was able to begin my Master’s in the area of Renewable Energy in September 2014. I had almost finished my Bachelor’s degree when the war broke out in Syria. It didn’t really matter to me where I carried on studying – the main thing was to get out. When I received an offer from Oldenburg, I immediately got on the plane. At that point I didn’t really know anyone in Germany. A distant acquaintance of my family picked me up from the airport and took me directly to the university. Before the semester started, I took a German course.”

New country, new language - did you settle in quickly?

“My degree course is very international, so a lot of it was in English. But I had to find my feet first. In Syria there’s not so much freedom of choice, so I felt a little disorientated at first. However, it was a big chance for me to combine the content of my degree course with my own convictions: a better infrastructure in my homeland. Even before the war, energy supply was not optimal there. So, at the start of my course, I had already decided to focus on the area of development cooperation for my internship. I quickly came across the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the German Agency for International Cooperation, in Eschborn and tried my luck with a blind application. And lo and behold, I received an offer!”

So off to FrankfurtRheinMain! What was your first impression?

„I had a good feeling right away. Compared to Oldenburg it’s much more international here, and I noticed immediately that this was the right place for me to grow both professionally and on the technical front. The region is growing and you can feel that. I really enjoyed my internship at the GIZ and so I decided to do my Master’s thesis here.”

Where did you live during this time?

„I thought it was going to be much easier to find a flat or room than it actually was. I didn’t have much luck via the usual online ads. It really only worked out though the community of the St. Ignatius church in Frankfurt. I enjoyed going to church at the weekends, and a couple there had heard that I was looking for temporary accommodation and offered me a room. What’s more, we got on really well and they become a type of substitute family for me, and I’m still in touch with them regularly.”

In 2016 you had your Master’s degree in the bag. What happened next?

„Yes, I was very proud of that. However, a legal countdown had just begun for me: I had exactly 18 months to find a job so that I could stay in Germany. Initially I went back to Oldenburg. However, I really wanted to go back to FrankfurtRheinMain and I still wanted to do something to help rebuild my homeland. So, I came up with a business idea: “Recopedia”. This “Wikipedia”, a type of internet dictionary, that can be edited by anyone, was designed to compile knowledge on sustainable reconstruction in Syria and allow access to everyone. I could hardly believe it when the GIZ and one of their subsiduaries at the time were interested in it. The GIZ subsiduary offered me an internship to further develop my idea and I packed my bags again!”

You can’t really live on an intern’s salary, can you?

“No. And it didn’t solve my residence status either. I was happy that I could live with my host family again. As a graduate, I had to pay for my health insurance. Without the family, I would not have been able to make ends meet.

Recopedia led you to a regional Hot Spot for entrepreneurs with social engagement: The Social Impact Lab.

„Yes, there I received support, visited seminars and carried on developing the idea. I loved the atmosphere and the network there. However, as is often the case with good ideas, the plan fell through due to lack of financing. I desperately needed a job! And, again, I was in luck, as the Social Impact Lab was looking for a project assistant. The position was temporary, but it gave me more time to find a working home in FrankfurtRheinMain and to finally settle in.”

A Master’s in Renewable Energy, relevant practical experience and a good knowledge of German. That probably stood you in good stead in the world of work?

“Again, this time it didn’t work out through classical job applications, but through networking. I happened to get to know someone and during the conversation it transpired that he worked for the company Elektro Ehinger. The company was looking for an engineer with international experience to work on a project as a link between the Korean customer and the company. I received a job offer!“

You have been working for Elektro Ehinger for 3 months now. How do you like it?

“I really like the job as it has a practical orientation. Here I’m doing a lot with my hands and learning new things every day. I’m very excited about successfully bringing this project to its conclusion. It’s difficult to tell where my journey will go after that, as I have a temporary contract this time as well. In any case, my adventure in FrankfurtRheinMain will not be over for a long time!”