In the Kolping educational training centre in Schwandorf, Germany, refugees and immigrants from all over the world share a classroom. Different cultures, everyday problems, and hopes for a better future shape the learning experience.
They stand in a circle and throw one another a ball. Whoever catches it introduces himself and welcomes the class with a ‘good morning’ in her or his own language. 14 people catch the ball. In eight cases the greeting sounds different. The teenagers of 10b who attend classes at the Kolping educational center in Schwandorf come from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, and the Dominican Republic. Their teacher, Anna Hanf, is from Hungary. The pupils fled to Germany alone or with their families in hope of a better future. The youngest are 16, the oldest in their mid-20s. They are mainly taught German, but gym classes, social education, cooking, and crafts are on the agenda as well. Everything seems so familiar, and yet everything is actually quite different.
The classroom walls are covered with hand-drawn posters, bearing titles such as ‘our Arab song’, ‘our Spanish song’, ‘We can count to ten – in six languages: Spanish, Kurdish, Persian, Bosnian, Czech, and Tigrinya’ as well as rules of conduct, explanations of prepositions, and a Christian cross. Two girls from Syria in head shawls sit on opposite sides of the room. The Greek Anastasia from another class tells us that conflicts about the different religious have already led to scuffles. At the same time one can see that everyone is equally welcomed here regardless of the religion he or she belongs to. The teenagers could be role models for peaceful and tolerant coexistence.
Recapitulating last week’s circus project and learning new words from the same lexical field is this lesson’s main task: walking, dancing, unicycle, clown, flying, throwing. The last two especially cause trouble. Why is it wrong to say: ‘I can fly the ball’? Not all questions can be answered immediately, because it is loud and lively in the room. The spiritless lethargy of German students doesn’t exist here. And yet, the lessons do not lack structure. Reasons for learning seem to differ. Their banter could as easily be overheard among young Germans: ‘Ey, dude! What are the heck are you talking about?’ But some stay silent and take longer if they try out some new wordplay. They only began to learn the alphabet a few months ago. It’s hard to find a way to teach such a mixed class and stay fair to everyone. The levels of education and previous knowledge are very different. Mrs. Hanf has decided to use the intermediates in her class as a point of orientation, even if that runs the risk of demanding too little from some and too much from others. Finding a book for this approach is hard though.
And even less of a manual exists for the right way to interact with young people who have experienced things they cannot talk about; and that doesn’t just have to do with a lack of language skills. Mrs Hanf explains that it often takes a long time until some have built enough trust and are emotionally in a position to talk about their past. But there is yet another reason for remaining silent about their experiences. People seeking asylum are sent back into the country where their fingerprints were first stamped. According to the Dublin Convention, this is the country that is in charge of the decision about their applications for asylum. Many applicants keep silent about the routes they took so as not to thwart the chances of those who follow in their footsteps, or of being able to seek asylum in Germany themselves.
Nobobdy knows how Senait, supposedly 16 years old, made it from Eritrea to Germany without being caught before, or which route he took. But here he is: without a passport – probably burnt a long time ago – without a date of birth, and without a family. He might not know the alphabet quite yet, but he has had a grasp of the German sentence structure long before the others did. Much like the others, Senait knows what he is studying for. He is not bored. School is new to him, and exciting. When the text that they have composed together is read at the end of class, some even raise their hand a second time to do it better than before. It’s in no small part down to the teacher that the students understood that they haven’t made it to a land of milk and honey, but that they need to learn in order to find a job. Despite this knowledge, many stop taking classes early and seek work instead. Many have left families in their home countries who are waiting for financial support, not for them to complete two years of school and obtain a qualification.
The fear of deportation is also everywhere. It dominates classroom interaction, more than homework, or the capital cities in social science class where Mrs. Maxim wants to teach her pupils the major institutions of the European Union. They are supposed to learn how to understand the system they ended up in. This causes vociferous resistance in class. Time and again they heckle her: ‘Why do I need to know this? I don’t want to stay here. Nobody wants me here! I’m going to the US!’
24-year-old Hamit, who fled by foot from Afghanistan after he had lost his wife and family in the war, explains that he has already found a lawyer. He plans on suing if he is deported. He says he intends to try everything to escape the Taliban. ‘Hope is a lie,’ he repeats again and again. Why start an education? He’s going to be 27 in three years. What should he start at this point? If he cannot complete his education in time or has to leave before, all the effort will have been wasted. He sees no prospects for himself. ‘It’s a catastrophy for the individual when they have to return to their homeland. We are very touched every single time, but the decision of who can stay is not for us to make. We can only hope to offer our students a good time, human warmth, an education, and maybe some hope,’ Mrs Maxim says.