Germany’s Refugee Crisis Comes to the Classroom

Schools are now the front line for integrating 1 million asylum-seekers in Europe’s largest country.

Refugees attend a German course in a classroom at a temporary home providing assistance for refugees in Berlin's Gatow district on August 6, 2015. Germany, overwhelmed by people fleeing war and poverty, is trying to deter asylum seekers from the Balkans, a region considered safe at least from armed conflict. AFP PHOTO / TOBIAS SCHWARZ        (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees attend a German course in a classroom at a temporary home providing assistance for refugees in Berlin's Gatow district on August 6, 2015. Germany, overwhelmed by people fleeing war and poverty, is trying to deter asylum seekers from the Balkans, a region considered safe at least from armed conflict. AFP PHOTO / TOBIAS SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

POTSDAM, Germany — It’s only the second week of class at Weidenhof Elementary School, a cheerful orange building in a rusty, neglected corner of Potsdam outside Berlin. Yvonne Albrecht is focusing on teaching the basics: days of the week, colors, and feelings.

Bright sun streams through the glass panel windows that line the room. Albrecht has pulled together mismatched chairs and desks to form one family-style table, everyone seated around with stacks of coloring pencils and books. She contorts her face and rubs her eyes with her fists, pointing to a wailing face on a sheet of paper. Wriggling hands shoot up in the air. Traurig, sad.

Albrecht’s students come from Syria, Palestine, Iran, and Romania, and they range from fourth- to sixth-graders. This is a Willkommensklasse, or welcome class, a special course for children who don’t speak German. Nour and her brother, Muhammad, arrived in the country three months ago after fleeing Damascus with their family. (The children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Aug. 31 was their first day of school in Germany.

“Melon, bananas, and cherries!” Muhammad, a wiry boy with an impish grin and impossibly long lashes, rattles off three of his favorite fruits, showing off his new language skills. For just two weeks of school, the Syrian siblings speak German remarkably well.

Every day, the students spend four hours together, sometimes inside the classroom but also outside the school’s walls: They play soccer, navigate the grocery store, and figure out how to read traffic signs.

“They learn how to understand the way of life in Germany to be able to really learn the language,” says Ute Goldberg, the school’s director.

As federal and local officials have scrambled to cope with record numbers of asylum-seekers entering the country, Germany’s schools are becoming the front line of Europe’s migration crisis. Despite instituting border controls Sunday to slow the surge of migrants entering the country, the German government is still expecting to receive up to 1 million asylum applications by the end of the year. According to its projections, some 40 percent of those arriving are school-age children. And the vast majority speak little or no German.

Integrating young Syrians, Iraqis, and Eritreans into German society falls largely on the shoulders of teachers and school leadership. The challenges, they say, are immense. “It’s the teacher who acts as a role model on how to deal with refugees. You can’t forget, we are a microcosm of social development,” says Simone Fleischmann, head of the Bavarian Teachers’ Association (BLLV) in southern Germany. “We can’t stall like the politicians and say, ‘Wait, let’s think about this; let’s hold a summit or meet with the chancellor.’ We have to act now.”

The school year has gotten underway across Germany, and many districts are facing huge logistical hurdles. The BLLV says Bavaria expects to absorb 50,000 new students by the end of 2015. Berlin just kicked off its new school year with 430 welcome classes. The responsibility for regulating education lies with states, and many are struggling to come up with enough teachers.

That has spurred a push to hire more than 3,000 new teachers, according to a Reuters news agency poll released Sept. 4. The most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, posted 1,200 job listings. Many of the positions are being filled. But the need for educators who can tutor German as a second language is growing fast.

Günter Baaske, the education minister in the eastern state of Brandenburg, says finding such a specialized pool of teachers from one day to the next has not been easy. But it’s no excuse, either: Existing personnel can and will adjust.

“I think we’re all able to communicate the first German sentences — my name is, I come from, I’m this many years old,” says Baaske. “Everyone can do that, even if it’s without the nuances of someone who’s specially trained.”

It’s not just about learning German, though. Teachers’ associations are demanding more resources for multi-professional teams of translators, psychologists, and social workers. They are needed to address widely varying skills and emotional issues — particularly for children whose families have fled war zones.

Albrecht, the teacher at the Weidenhof school, says an important part of her job lies beyond the classroom walls. She visits the asylum-seeker shelters and talks to caseworkers and parents. She is trying to understand more about her students’ lives before they arrived in Germany.

When policemen visited Albrecht’s class looking for tips after a local boy went missing, Farzin, a bright Iranian girl quick to blush, hid under the table and cried so inconsolably she had to be taken outside. Another student from Syria dissolved into tears every time the class was about halfway through. She could communicate her name and age, but not what made her upset.

“You really don’t know what they’ve experienced, and you have to be flexible and ready to switch gears or adjust,” says Albrecht.

Goldberg, the director, has plans to turn an unused space into an anti-aggression room and a relaxation room with music and light therapy for all the students. The school lies in a poor neighborhood, and many of her children, not just refugees, can benefit from more attention. So she has lobbied continuously for funds to pay translators and psychologists, but has often found herself butting up against red tape.

“German bureaucracy gets in the way a lot,” Goldberg says. “I have to say, we’re not good at spontaneity.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government have promised to ease some of those hurdles. On Sept. 6, she announced her government would provide states with an extra 3 billion euros to help cope with the influx of refugees. A few days earlier, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced a package of measures helping towns and cities bypass “standard procedures” that have hamstrung efforts to address extraordinary circumstances. It is hoped that both moves will help relieve the burden on schools.

Merkel herself visited a welcome class in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood on Sept. 10, where she praised the teachers, school administration, and students for their work. “The effort for each and every child is worth it,” the chancellor said. “We want to give them a good future.”

In recent weeks, a surge of pro-refugee sentiment has swept Germany, as people have lined up at train stations to cheer newly arrived refugees, donated clothes and money, and taken vacation days to help officials with mountains of paperwork. The hospitality has reached classrooms, too. Retired teachers have volunteered to give German lessons at asylum shelters or help out in schools. Donations have helped educators stock up on books, toys, and learning tools.

But the efforts and money put toward integrating refugees in classrooms have not been welcomed across the board. The BLLV says parents of some German children have demanded their own kids also receive special classes and extra support.

“If you have to cancel a class for German kids, children who were already in the school, so that you can use that time to teach the refugees, you can imagine the kind of discussion that sparks,” says Fleischmann, the head of the BLLV. “And teachers are worried that the sentiments running through society will end up in their classrooms.”

The sentiments are still overwhelmingly positive. Merkel has been hailed as a savior and hero among tens of thousands of Syrian refugees heading to Europe. Germany has been one of the few countries that has opened its doors as others have shut them.

But that seems to be changing. Berlin’s decision on Sunday to introduce temporary border checks wasn’t just a warning volley fired at fellow European Union member states. It was also an admission that Germany is reaching its organizational and logistical limits. And experts warn the outpouring of support and solidarity with the refugees could also start to turn.

“The joy they feel [in helping] is tied to the moment, but what comes after that is normalization, everyday life. And that is difficult,” says Serhat Karakayali, an expert on the political sociology of migration at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research. “It’s not enough to stand at the train station; we need an institutional and social culture of acceptance of diversity.”

Integration is still a fraught theme in German society. When waves of guest workers from Turkey, North Africa, and Yugoslavia flocked to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, authorities thought they would return home after working for a few years. They didn’t. Decades later, deep divisions remain. Merkel made headlines in 2010 when she said attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany had “utterly failed.”

The Berlin-based German Philology Association says studies show the third generation of children from Turkish families are less integrated than the first. “We didn’t succeed in fostering support and integrating them into society,” said Heinz-Peter Meidinger, the association’s chairman. “And I believe it’s much too early to say whether this [current] integration will succeed or has succeeded.”

Still, there are growing signs that this time, the approach is different — maybe because there is so much to gain. Germany badly needs migration, especially of young people. The country is aging and shrinking at an alarming rate. It surpassed Japan with the lowest birthrate in the world earlier this year, according to a German auditing company. The working-age population is falling, putting Germany’s vaunted productivity and its generous social welfare system at risk.

Employers are struggling to fill skilled and unskilled positions, too. There are thousands of apprenticeships available in specialized trades, and many newly arrived migrants are eager to work. Last month, Germany’s Federal Employment Agency urged lawmakers to help integrate asylum-seekers into the workforce as quickly as possible.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has eased regulations so that asylum-seekers can start working after three months. Bavaria has launched a program to help match young refugees with vocational traineeships where they can earn a living and lay the foundation for full-time work down the road. Several German universities across the country have offered asylum-seekers to visit classes for free, and the state of Baden-Württemberg awarded 50 scholarships to Syrian refugees so they can begin or continue their studies.

Taken together, integrating 250,000 new refugee children this year could work, say educators, with the right combination of resources, language training, and emotional support. The students at the Weidenhof school have up to a year in the welcome class before they are integrated into the regular classrooms, with German-speaking students. After just two weeks, many of them have already blended into the halls and playgrounds.

“We adults can learn a lot from watching kids,” says Goldberg, the school’s director. “If we looked at everything as worry-free as they do, everything would be a lot calmer.”

Photo credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

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