BERLIN, Germany—Two years after Syrians started coming to Germany by the hundreds of thousands, the nation has had decidedly mixed results in integrating the new arrivals into its educational system. Older children are often shut out of learning anything other than German language and culture during their first year, though younger children who quickly learn the language can join their German peers in the classroom.
Part of the problem, experts say, stems from the decentralized, ad hoc approach to refugee education in Germany. Schools had to adopt policies quickly after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s historic decision in 2015 to open the nation’s borders to people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and other regions—a policy that quickly made Germany the top European destination for refugees.
“Everyone comes to understand that these measures are only going to be temporary,” said Juliane Karakayali, a professor of sociology at Berlin’s Protestant University of Applied Sciences. “For that reason, they justify not creating long-lasting structural changes because they believe this to be a one-off situation.”
As of September 2017, Germany had absorbed almost 1.4 million refugees, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. On average, 37 percent of the nation’s newcomers are children younger than 18.
For some of the new arrivals, the system is working. Among them are the young daughters of Mohamed, a 37-year-old refugee from Homs, Syria, who now resides in the southern Berlin borough of Neukölln. Mohamed, who asked that his surname remain private, marvels at what his family has accomplished since they fled Syria in August 2015. They arrived in Germany six months later, after stopovers in Lebanon and Kuwait.
But as soon as they arrived, hardships ensued. Smugglers robbed the family in Berlin’s central train station. In the city’s refugee shelters, while waiting for beds to become available, they often had to camp out in dank tents in the winter. They had a toddler and a newborn baby girl. Now, with the help of a private aid group, they live in an apartment.
Despite the family’s difficulties, Mohamed takes solace in the progress of his daughters, Laura, 6, and Tala, 2, in the German school system. Laura speaks fluent German, he said. “Sometimes we try and learn from her. She’s not shy about speaking.”
Mohamed’s daughters are young enough to have entered into regular German classrooms immediately. They are lucky. Many older refugee children are making painfully slow progress in Germany’s decentralized system for educating refugees.
Most refugee and immigrant students older than 6 or 7 are first enrolled in segregated, yearlong “welcome classes” that focus on teaching German language and culture. The classes are meant to prepare foreign students for the demanding curriculum of the country’s traditional schools.
The welcome classes are also meant to ease refugee students into the German education system without overwhelming schools designed for culturally homogenous German students, said Klaus Hurrelmann, a professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance, a private university in Berlin.
A relic of Germany’s Prussian past, the German educational system sorts students into one of three secondary-school tracks based on aptitude, with only the best students given an opportunity to attend a university.
Movement between tracks is difficult, and immigrant children often fall behind. Students with an immigrant background in Germany performed 50 percent worse than their German peers in subjects like math and science, even after socioeconomic status was taken into account, according to a 2015 OECD study.
Difficulty in mastering the German language is usually blamed as the chief culprit behind the disparities, and some advocates say that supports the welcome classes’ philosophy of teaching refugee students German for a year at the expense of other subjects.
“Teaching the language is paramount in these classes, but also familiarizing students with the rules of day-to-day life in a German school,” said Hurrelmann.
While the model sounds ideal to some, it raises “a lot of questions about whether all of these deficits can be smoothed out within a year’s time,” Hurrelmann added. “But what alternatives do we have?”
Another concern about the welcome classes is that they differ greatly from state to state. Each of Germany’s 16 federal states has responsibility for its own education system, with little federal oversight.
Since no federal program for the courses exist, many teachers in the welcome classes are untrained and make up lessons as they go along, said Karakayali, who has researched courses that serve 12,000 refugee students in Berlin.
There, for example, welcome-class instructors must be trained in German language instruction, according to city education authorities. But Berlin’s Union for Education and Science, a labor group, said that almost half of all new educators in Berlin hired this year lacked prior teaching experience.
Many teachers feel as if the welcome classes ghettoize refugee students rather than giving them the tools they need to succeed. Karakayali says the classes can especially shortchange older students, who should be learning other material in core subjects, not just German.
“Teenagers are losing an entire year of schooling only learning the German language,” she said. “It’s an inefficient design. We need to find a model for these students where they can try out normal classes while also learning German.”
But the welcome classes are just “the tip of the iceberg” of the problems Germany has with properly educating and integrating refugees, Karakayali added. “Everything is being done out of panic,” she said. “The problem is that education policy is generally misguided.”
Mohamed has experienced the problems of the refugee education system first hand. To obtain German visas, he and his wife, Soda, who is 28, had to enroll in an intensive, state-run language and integration course for adults.
While Soda’s class is taught entirely in German, hardly a word of German is spoken in Mohamed’s class, he said. The instructor speaks English to the students, and Mohamed often translates from English into Arabic for everyone else.
“I help people in my class who can’t tell the difference between the letters A, B and C. We are all considered equal,” said Mohamed. “I’ve wasted six months of my life to do these things. For nothing.”
Mohamed has managed to teach himself conversational German, a skill that’s helped him land part-time work as a caretaker at his apartment complex. He hopes to bolster his German and eventually score an internship or an apprenticeship as a motorcycle mechanic, his occupation before he left Syria.
He has high hopes for his daughters, too. Their teachers tell him the girls are excelling in school.
“For Laura, I want her to be a dentist. She likes to play with the idea of fixing people’s teeth,” he said. “The smallest one, I want her to be a lawyer. She always defends her mom when we’re talking.”
But other refugees trying to receive an education in Germany unfortunately can’t be so optimistic, said Karakayali.
“It’s simply not fair to leave these children and adolescents in such a terrible, precarious situation,” she said. “Do we want to live in such a backwards society where it’s not clear if entire groups of people are receiving the same chances as others?”