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FRANKFURT -- "I was at the top of my career, earning well, and now I'm back at the bottom," says Elena Nunez-Arenas, one of thousands from debt-wracked eurozone countries seeking work in Germany, Europe's powerhouse.
The 44-year-old from Madrid is a fully qualified lawyer and jumped at the chance to leave crisis-mired Spain for the possibility of a new career in Frankfurt, Germany's financial center.
"Last November or December, my situation became so difficult in Spain that I decided on a whim to leave," she told AFP with a sad smile.
"I have a cousin who has lived in Frankfurt for years who kept telling me 'you'll find a job here,'" she said.
But Nunez-Arenas fell into what she describes as "the overqualification trap."
She cannot secure a job as a lawyer in Germany without passing a tough German law exam, which is out of the question due to her limited language skills.
And even with her savings dwindling, the prospect of a "mini-job" in the kitchens at Frankfurt Airport at eight euros ($10.50) per hour does not exactly thrill her.
"I would not have been able to study on the side. I would have had to be available at all hours. And for those wages, I could have done the same thing in Spain," she said.
Nunez-Arenas is one of nearly 17,000 people who came to Germany last year from countries in the south of Europe weighed down by debt -- Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
According to data published this week by Germany's federal statistics agency Destatis, the number of new arrivals from these countries increased by 1.7 percent year-on-year in 2011, with 7,000 from Greece alone.
It's not just hard-up Greeks seeking a new life in Germany. Having resisted the eurozone crisis better than most and enjoying low unemployment, Europe's top economy is becoming an Eldorado for jobseekers.
At the end of 2011, there were 6.93 million foreigners living in Germany, an increase of 177,275, or 2.6 percent, on the previous year.
This is the "biggest rise for 15 years," Destatis commented.
But not all the new arrivals come with a hard-luck story.
Federica Sozzi does not regret for an instant leaving her Italian birthplace for Germany last year.
"I got a permanent contract and I am better paid for fewer hours," raves the 33-year-old woman who translates video games for a living.
"Where I came from, in Brescia (northern Italy), I worked 14 hours a day, but as a freelancer I was overwhelmed by taxes and earned around 1,000 euros per month on average," she said.
Joao Vasco Lopes, a young Portuguese aeronautical engineering graduate, did not hesitate when he was offered a training contract in the western German city of Darmstadt, which soon became a full-time posting.
"I was lucky enough to get the job I wanted," he said.
"It would definitely not have been as interesting for me to stay in Portugal," he said.
Now it would be "even harder" to return to his homeland, given budgetary cuts that have made life harder for scientists in Portugal, he explained.
Germany, which actually suffers from a lack of skilled workers, is doing all it can to attract qualified workers from abroad, with the federal labor office last year setting up a unit for that purpose.
With a low birth rate and rapidly shrinking population, Germany is crying out for engineers, technicians, or healthcare professionals.
"We are getting signs that more and more qualified workers are arriving here," said Marion Rang from the federal labor office. "And we have the impression that it is really beginning to take off."
But not everyone's German dream is coming true.
"I'll give it another month. If I don't find anything I'll go home," says frustrated Spanish lawyer Nunez-Arenas.
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