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In Germany, Syrian Refugee Navigates Re-entry Into Higher Education

This article is one in a series of profiles of young refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people and their efforts to get education and employment.

BERLIN- A year ago, when Muhammad Al-Azaawi arrived in Germany after a harrowing trek from his native Syria via Turkey, his plan was to learn German and re-enroll in school as soon as possible.

“I left because of war, but also because I wanted to study in Germany,” said Al-Azaawi, 19, who shares an apartment in Bielefeld with his 16-year-old brother and other two Syrian refugees. “I studied civil engineering for a year in Damascus but I had to leave. The situation in Syria was unbearable.”

He recalled how mortar shells interrupted his second semester’s final exams in June 2015. “We were a group of five friends,” he said, referring to classmates who opted to migrate to Europe rather than remain. “I was the last one to leave.”

With his younger brother, Al-Azaawi passed through Deir Azzour, Raqqa – the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate – to Afrin, the Kurdish city near the Syrian-Turkish frontier. Crossing the border was the trickiest part of the journey. “If someone is caught by the Turkish borders police, he’d be beaten up until he cannot move,” he said.

Turkish authorities caught Al-Azaawi. But he was lucky. They only threatened to kill him if they caught him again. So he went to Idlib in northwest Syria and passed into Turkey there.

Later, the boat trip from Izmir on the Turkish Mediterranean Coast to the Greek island of Lesbos was 45 minutes long. “Easy and fast,” he said.

Hungary was more difficult. “I saw the Hungarian police beating my brother while he was trying to cross the border from Serbia,” he said. “I tried to help him but I was caught too.”

Hungarian officials gave him a meager ration of bread and water that he was supposed to make last for days, he said.

In August 2015, he reached Munich. Two months later, before he was officially declared a refugee, he was taking German courses. In May, he obtained refugee status. This month, he starts intermediate German.

Today, Al-Azaawi is one of more than 1 million Middle Easterners and North Africans who arrived in Germany last year as migrants.

More than half of the adults among the 160,000 Syrians who applied for refugee status last year – a low number that reflects a backlog in registrations – possess Syrian high school or university diplomas, according to the German Council of Science and Humanities. But only about 50,000 of those Syrians are ready to study in Germany higher education, estimates the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Many don’t have transcripts, making it hard for them to apply to German universities, according to the Foundation.

In February, Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees launched a special program that aims to integrate 2,400 student-refugees annually into German universities. Schools have also set aside funds for preparatory courses for promising students, too.

Al-Azaawi heard about the federal migration office’s program only recently, so he hasn’t applied yet. His goal now is to study civil engineering at Aachen University, one of the best programs in the country. Al-Azaawi also audits engineering and others courses at Bielefeld for free.

“The university is putting efforts to attract refugees,” he said.

Al-Azaawi needs to pass the DSH German language test and the Test for Academic Studies for foreigners, or TAS. The latter assesses students’ IQ and knowledge of biology, physics, geometry and other sciences. Before the migrant crisis, Germany offered the test in English and German. Now it’s also available in Arabic.

He hopes to complete those tests and apply to Aachen before next summer and enroll in the fall. Unfortunately, he said, first-year students in Germany can’t start in spring or summer.

Costs have been another hurdle. The German government provides unemployed refugees €400 a month. But language courses cost 240 euros. The university doesn’t offer free German courses for auditing.

Al-Azaawi wants to start working soon either as a translator – his English is good – or at a restaurant. “I don’t want to stay in the welfare system any longer,” he said.

Still, the German stipend for refugees has been an incentive for Syrians on student visas to apply for asylum so they might remain in Germany. Regular foreign students have to study and work to afford their living expenses. Government-backed student loans are available to refugees once a university accepts them, too.

“If I had to come here on a student visa I would have needed to pay 8,000 euros a year; my whole refuge trip cost me 1,500,” said Al-Azaawi.

Still, Al-Azaawi envies Syrians who arrived in Germany on student visas. He might receive a modest stipend and other perks, but he’s now on track toward being two years behind as he prepares to take exams so that he might apply to a school. Syrians who came on student visas begin studying right away and integrate immediately into the German higher education system, he said.

“They know how to find their way around,” Al-Azaawi said.


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