‘I Teach Young, Male Refugees In Germany – And The Headlines Don’t Tell The Whole Story’

What I see on the news, read in the papers, and hear on the radio about refugees-- the extreme stuff, the highly negative and panicked stuff -- is not the version of the refugee crisis that I encounter in this classroom

North East refugee group asks for spare rooms

by Jennifer O'Hagan |
Published on

Faisal* has just asked me if Harry Styles is a real person. We’re in a classroom in Berlin and the aim of the lesson is for him and his classmates to learn the German words for pieces of clothing. Harry Styles seemed like a good place to start, mainly because there are so many full length pictures of him online. ‘His name is Harry Styles’, I say in careful, paced German, ‘What is he wearing?’ At this point, Faisal indicates that he wants to say something, so I pause. He reaches for a German-Persian dictionary and scans the pages. Finally, his question comes: ‘He … real?’ ‘Ja!’ I nod vigorously...‘yes – Harry Styles is a real person. He is a pop star. He sings and dances. Do you know what it means? Tanzen?’ One of the other boys grins and starts doing a little dance in his chair.

I know only very limited information about Faisal. He is from Afghanistan. I believe he is 19. Like the 7 other boys in the classroom, he arrived in Germany three or four months ago. I don’t know what specific set of events brought him here, whether or not members of his family are here too, or how likely it is that he’ll be allowed to stay. I do know that, as of yet, he has not been granted asylum, which is why he is not eligible for state-run German lessons. Instead, he comes to us, a team of volunteers in connection with an organisation called Moabit Hilft e.V. (‘Moabit Helps’). I also know that he comes to learn German pretty much every day for two hours, and that he has to travel across Berlin for more than half an hour to get here. The rest of what I know is utterly mundane, language-lesson stuff: he likes reading, he can’t swim, his birthday is in July.

We get on with naming the clothes. With temperatures approaching minus 10 in Berlin, it’s especially important that the young men learn these words. They need to know that Harry Styles is wearing a Mantel, a coat, because they need to know how they can ask for one too. In fact, if you look at it in terms of what they need to know, the list is daunting: food, drink, greetings, days of the week, illnesses, safety. But, teaching a language in these circumstances is not easy. We share, at best, some knowledge of English, but beyond that we have very few common reference points. Some of the young men have never written or read using the Roman alphabet, they’re used to Perso-Arabic script. We sit and practice drawing the letters in those triple-lined notepads that most of us won’t have seen since primary school. Communication requires a lot of patience and willingness from both sides – but often, in the end, we get there.

In our first lesson, for example, I wanted to explain that we would take a five minute break. You can’t really do it with a mime or a gesture, so on the board I drew a picture of a remote control. Especially big, I drew the triangle, the square, and the two lines indicating: play, stop, pause. I drew a big arrow to ‘pause’ which happens to be the German word for break – we will pause now for five minutes, I said, stretching out all my fingers. Smiles all round: I think they understood.

Today, I indicate the beginning of the break by opening the window – a common practice in Germany, no matter how cold it is outside. They call it stoßlüften: you let burst of fresh air into the room; brand new oxygen to keep you healthy, focussed, sharp. Murmurs from outside make their way into the room, mingled with the fresh air. Our classroom is rented from a state-run premises called the Landesamt für Soziales und Gesundes. Known as ‘LaGeSo’ for short, it has developed a reputation, elsewhere in the world for being at the forefront of the refugee crisis– that’s to say, for being chaotic, disorganised, and completely overstretched. But that’s not the scene outside our window today. There’s a steady two-and-fro of people going about their business: a line of people waiting to receive health checks, women collecting supplies of nappies and milk, a static police van.


Outside of our room – in Germany and across much of Europe -- the debate about the refugees is raging. It is a debate characterised by numbers, anger, panic, stress. Diverse and complex challenges are emerging, and it can seem overwhelming, even utterly hopeless at times. Indeed, there have been many instances where anger and fear have escalated into hate crimes and acts of violence. Especially following the events that unfolded on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, there is now widespread and much discussed concern about integration in connection with a sudden influx of foreign young men. While I don’t doubt that there have been and remain very real causes for concern, I also know that what I see on the news, read in the papers, and hear on the radio -- the extreme, highly negative and panicked stuff – doesn't seem to fit with my own experience. What I know is that those stories do not tell the whole story about the refugee crisis. There’s also a slow version, a day-to-day version, a version with small successes – like the one we see in our classroom.

I am not saying that we are cut off from the challenges and events which are making headlines, and, are very real. But, let’s try and be calm and proactive, despite the difficulties we face.

At the end of this lesson, one of the young men asks me to translate for him a letter. It says, I tell him, that on Monday you have to register for a new place to live. Has he understood? I point at a calendar and try rephrasing it: ‘From Monday, you cannot live in your accommodation.’ At moments like this, you become re-alerted to the circumstances: the extent to which resources in the city are stretched, and the number of hurdles these men have yet to face.

On a different occasion, I came into the classroom to find that the teacher’s notes from the lesson before ours were still on the board. I felt a pinch of envy upon realising that their class was already learning the future tense – a complex construction. ‘In the future I want to …’ It’s the kind of statement you learn in language lessons at school: ‘In the future I want to go to university’; ‘I want to travel the world.’ But these things hadn’t been suggested by the class. Instead, underneath the title, were the words ‘let’s see’ and, in much bigger letters, ‘catastrophe.’ Other bits of vocab were dotted around the edges of the board ‘I often think about Syria’, ‘I think about my own doctor’s practice.’ It’s at moments like this, in an empty classroom, that the despair becomes more tangible. How can you contemplate the future when you don’t have a place to live, at least not a secure one?

I shut the window. Back to the lesson. I walk around the room to see if they have been able to write some sentences about what clothes they are wearing. Some of them have really got the hang of it; others seem to be still trying to read the questions and copy down the words from the board. I smile as I look over Faisal’s shoulder; he has written the words ‘One Direction’ on his piece of paper with a big arrow pointing at Harry’s head. It’s not exactly obligatory knowledge or a complex grammatical structure, but he’s learned something in our class today. That knowledge might come in handy one day. And maybe, he even had a moment’s distraction -- the chance to think about something completely unconnected to his long list of appointments, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty. That’s what I hope anyway.

*his name has been changed

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Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferOHagan

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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