German integration policies pose critical test for Merkel

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEIntegration.jpegBerlin — On a recent Friday evening in Berlin's northwestern neighborhood of Wedding, a borough where some 49 percent of residents have a non-German background, community organizer and educator Kava Spartak helped about a dozen Afghan refugees navigate the basics of the German language.

The class, an offering of Yaar Berlin, an Afghan education and community center in Wedding that Spartak helped found in 2012, included Afghan refugees of all ages – from 19-year-olds still in school to 50-year-olds with no formal education.

Though everyone in the class has been in Berlin for over a year, none can speak even conversational German, meaning that Spartak, teaching in Farsi, had to use a bit of imagination to get across basic German vocabulary. He wiped his brow to convey the word "summer," and mimed smelling a bouquet of flowers for "spring."

It's an issue Spartak often faces when working with refugees in Germany. Over two years since German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the nation's borders to over one million refugees fleeing war in Syria and conflict elsewhere in the world, Germany's antiquated school structure and preferential asylum system are still posing huge barriers to language learning.

"Germany, in comparison to other countries, is actually not that experienced in terms of integrating people from other countries or cultures – they’re not experienced and they’re not successful," said Spartak. "People need to learn the language, otherwise they cannot feel that they are a part of society and cannot find jobs."

Despite being heralded as a feat of humanitarianism, Chancellor Merkel's move to open the nation's borders in 2015 has overwhelmed educational institutions in Germany originally designed for natives, said Klaus Hurrelmann, a professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Traditionally, German schools are organized in a tripartite structure, meaning students are routed into one of three secondary schools based on performance and teacher recommendations after elementary school. Only the most prestigious route offers a direct path to university.

Though Germany has been a nation of immigrants since the 1960's, when Turkish and Arab "guest workers" came to Germany to help rebuild the nation after World War Two, the nation's school system hasn't changed in structure, much to the detriment of non-Germans. According to a 2015 OECD study, immigrants in Germany perform about 50 percent worse in subjects like math and science than German students do, even after accounting for socioeconomic status.

Teachers simply aren't versed in how to teach non-German students, who come into classrooms not speaking the German language and have different educational backgrounds than is the German norm, said Hurrelmann.

"The German tradition is teaching for homogenous groups straight from the beginning, and if the child can't keep up, he or she is held back," he said. "This is a tremendous challenge for German schools that are now dealing with thousands of refugee children, who, according to our tradition, would have been placed in special-education."

With as many as 400,000 school-aged refugee children now in the mix, according to government statistics, one solution has been to route students into specially designed welcome classes where newcomers can learn the German language and culture for a year before transitioning into a regular class schedule with German peers.

But studies of the system show that there's a lack of continuity in how these kids are being educated, primarily due to the fact that German schools differ from state to state, and Germany is seriously lacking in qualified teachers. One 2017 study by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation concluded that 24,000 additional teachers will be needed by 2025 to accommodate the 1 million new students who will be in the system by that time.

Meanwhile, it still isn't standard for student teachers to learn how to teach German as a foreign language, said Thomas Bauer, head of Germany's Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration.

"Every fifth resident in Germany has some migration background, so to obtain knowledge of different cultures, of different languages, of how to teach German as a foreign language, should be important for all teachers," he said.

Bauer added that it's still unclear whether the welcome classes are the most effective model for teaching German to refugee students. Past integration experiments weren't scientifically evaluated, and those working in the field today still need to assess the current model for its efficacy.

For Faroz, 19, from Afghanistan, who's been in Berlin for a year and a half, the welcome classes aren't worth the effort. "I'm still in a welcome class, and it's really a waste of time – I don't feel like I learn anything," he said, adding that he comes to Yaar Berlin's language classes to make up what he's supposed to be learning in school.

Teens like Faroz, however, are lucky that they have direct access to language classes at German schools because they're young, said Spartak. For adults, only those with good prospects of staying in Germany from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea are fast-tracked to receive a spot in state-run integration and language courses right after they arrive.

Others from countries like Afghanistan – the country with the highest number of asylum seekers after Syria – have to wait for a decision on their application before they can begin to study German, a process that can take years.

"My proposal would be to open the German courses for everybody from day one," said Spartak. "If you miss the chance to offer these people language courses from the very beginning, you will also miss the opportunity to integrate them."

Even so, the problems in Germany's school system are present in educating adult refugees as well, said Bauer: There's a lack of qualified educators who know how to teach German to adults with little to no formal education.

Figures from Germany's Office for Migration and Refugees indicate that almost one-quarter of newcomers only possess at most an elementary school education, and around 80 percent of those individuals can't display the minimum level of German needed to get an apprenticeship or a job even after having taken state-run courses.

The government's solution to the problem is to speed up the processing of asylum applications by erecting all-inclusive refugee centers across the country. The new centers would cut down the asylum process to 18 months maximum for individuals, and 6 months for families, in order to more quickly get newcomers on the path toward language learning and integration.

While addressing processing speeds are a major cause of integration and language learning issues, there could be negative side effects if the new policy isn't implemented smoothly, said Bauer.

"If they stay there for 18 months and kids don't have access to schools, or individuals don't have access to integration courses or to independent asylum counselling from independent lawyers, then it's a problem," he said.

Whatever government initiatives come to pass, Spartak hopes they will help to solve issues with teaching newcomers German, a skill he sees as pivotal for successful integration to take place.

"One of the biggest weak points is the support for language learning," he said. "We have to provide support for everybody from the beginning and integrate them into the job market."

"That requires the language," he added. "One follows the other."
An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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