Help of all kinds

2 March 2015

Welcome to Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz! – The sentence is easy to say. Foreign scientists and researchers often have to clear a lot of hurdles before they can feel at home in Germany. The Welcome Center at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) helps them – in every way.

Chuan Li and Dan Rao are stressed, anybody can see it in the young couple's faces. They still manage to wear a disarming smile when they enter the room. "Please excuse us, I think we're a bit late", says Li. He still speaks in English but wants to learn German as soon as possible. After all he and his wife plan to stay in Mainz for a few years and he is looking forward to it. But the paperwork needs to be dealt with first. Rao and Li do have had some problems here. So they decided to visit the JGU Welcome Center a few weeks ago.

Li has been living in Europe for years. He worked in the UK and most recently in the Netherlands before coming to the Institute of Computer Science in Mainz. The native of China is used to living abroad. He already had a visa for Germany when he came. However, he did not think his wife would need one too – and had no idea how complicated things could get.

A visa from Amsterdam

"I needed to travel back to the Netherlands and apply for a visa in the German Embassy in Amsterdam," says Rao. "We made a lot of calls but there was nothing we could do about it," adds Gabriel Belinga Belinga regretfully. He works together with Snjezana Teljega in the Welcome Center at JGU to help foreign scientists who come to Mainz.

Nevertheless, Belinga Belinga was able to support the young married couple in many other ways. Li and Rao had underestimated the bureaucratic complexity they would face. "When I left Utrecht, I simply told them that I have health insurance in Germany. It was enough for them. They wished me bon voyage." In addition, the computer scientist was able to accomplish a lot with simple e-mails in the Netherlands.

He was thus very surprised by the tsunami of paperwork that crashed over him when he came to Germany. "Everything here is interdependent. People are very accurate. If I don't have a certain piece of paper, there is no way of getting things done. I really wasn’t used to that."

Authorities and cultures

Small things become barriers. One official finds it odd that Li and Rao do not have the same last names. "They said there is no way we could be married. But in China it's fairly normal. Even our grandparents did not share their last names."

Belinga Belinga listens attentively. This detail was new to him. However, he knew a lot about everything else: He knew everything they needed for health insurance and social security, for opening a bank account, or getting a visa. "We have translations of all the most important forms here," he explains. Belinga Belinga and his colleague also help with the paperwork. "Do you have your social security number yet?," he asks Li.

The Welcome Center at Mainz University has been open since March 2012. "We did not have this kind of central facility beforehand," says Teljega. The Welcome Department of the JGU International Office bundles everything international guests need, they greet and help foreign students, they are responsible for the Visiting Professors Building on the Gutenberg campus as well as for the Welcome Center for visiting scientists such as Li.

Improvisation skills required

"At the start I took a grand tour," recalls Belinga Belinga. "I visited every faculty at the university to promote our center." He realized it would be ideal if all the scientists who want to come to Mainz University would report here, even if they only filled out the specially drafted registration form that Belinga Belinga and Teljega use to get an impression of what they should offer the guests. "It could be something as simple as offering our event newsletter in English," Teljega names an example.

"We need to constantly promote and inform on the kind of services we provide," says Belinga Belinga. "Some only come to us after things have gone bad. I have had people in here who did not have a place to spend the night, or a scientist who everybody assumed was coming alone but came with his entire family."

Improvisation is needed in such situations. "In extreme cases I got on my bicycle to see if I could find a room or at least a mattress for the night." Such cases will hopefully be a thing of the past. Teljega and Belinga Belinga are doing everything they can to spread the word about what they offer, which is so much more than emergency assistance.

Language courses, round tables, and more

For example, the Welcome Center can offer Li a place in a special language course for scientists, doctoral candidates, and postdoctoral scholars at the International Preparatory and Language Center of the university. And if there is no room for Rao, Belinga Belinga will search for an alternative.

"We also have a round table," explains Teljega. "We meet every first Wednesday of the month." She brings out a folder that she has prepared for any visitors. In addition to a city map and registration form, it lists a whole series of available assistance for the campus, for dealing with officials, and for the region. A new guideline from the Welcome Center is now available for faculties who expect foreign employees. It will help them know what they need to do.

Li and Rao have yet to resolve some minor problems but together with Belinga Belinga and Teljega they are making progress step by step. The couple is not just getting help in dealing with larger issues, but also with small things in their daily routine. "At the institute everyone is friendly and open," says Li. "They work with focus and precision." He hesitates a bit. "But the different forms of address in German – Sie and Du – still confuse me. When can I use somebody's first name and when do I use the last name, when do I say professor, when can I leave it out?"

Belinga Belinga smiles. There is no real solution. "We in Germany are very often not all that sure ourselves," he admits. Li and Rao just have to figure it out. But both of them seem like they will make it. They are looking forward to their time in Mainz.