By Riham Alkousaa
BERLIN (Reuters) - When Abdul Kader Tizini graduated with a master's degree in mechanical engineering from RWTH Aachen, one of Germany's top technical universities, he thought it would be a matter of weeks before he landed his dream job.
Just over a month later the coronavirus spread to Germany, stopping a decade-long employment boom in its tracks.
Now, some 800 job applications and 80 interviews later, the 29-year-old Syrian is still in search of work.
Being a foreigner was a disadvantage in getting employment in Europe's biggest economy even before the pandemic. It has become more of a barrier now there are fewer vacancies, Tizini said.
"Companies think, 'With a foreigner we'll have to explain the idea twice, with a native only once'," he told Reuters.
Hiring freezes and layoffs at thousands of German companies mean foreign graduates like Tizini face fierce competition with native graduates and unemployed professionals.
Unlike German and European Union nationals, who are entitled to unemployment benefits and coronavirus aid, many foreign graduates do not qualify.
Hundreds of thousands of international students were drawn to Germany in the past decade, encouraged by a reputable yet almost free higher education system and strong post-graduation employment prospects.
The number of international students in Germany rose by around 70% between 2009 and 2019, data from the Federal Statistics Office showed.
LANGUAGE, CULTURE BARRIER
Anja Robert, a career adviser at RWTH Aachen, said international students in Germany were finding it more difficult to find jobs than native Germans.
The demand for her team's counselling sessions and for psychological support has risen since March, when Germany went into its first lockdown to battle the pandemic, she said.
"In such insecure times, one tends towards safety, relying on established language skills, cultural traits and understanding."
Germany's unemployment rate rose to as much as 6.4% after the government imposed the first lockdown, from 5% in the previous months. It hit 6% in January this year.
The pandemic's impact on the German job market has been mitigated by the government's "Kurzarbeit" scheme that allows employers to cut hours during an economic downturn. But it also makes hiring more difficult.
Companies that are on the scheme can hire staff in exceptional cases if they have a compelling reason, Ludwig Christian, a spokesman for the Federal Labour Office, said.
Between April 2020 and January this year, the number of new vacancies in Germany fell by 430,000, or 26% year-on-year, Labour Office data showed.
Another challenge foreign students face is a weaker professional and social network, exacerbated by job fairs and networking events being cancelled or moved online amid the pandemic.
"Digital networking is simply more difficult, especially if you come from another country and you are not familiar with how networking here works," said Jana Koehler, a Berlin-based international recruiter.
Two lockdowns in spring and winter last year also shuttered restaurants and retailers, meaning thousands fewer part-time jobs which students fill to support themselves financially.
Last April, the German government included foreigners in an interest-free loan programme for students. Graduates, however, are not eligible.
Access to unemployment aid for foreign graduates is also conditional on living in Germany for five years, meaning many master's graduates lose out.
Tizini has survived on monthly transfers from his brother.
After investing so much time and more than 10,000 euros ($12,032.00) to study in Germany, returning to Syria was not an option.
"There is no way to live but to wait for others' help. I am giving everything I can, but all in vain."
($1 = 0.83 euros)
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Mike Collett-White)