The New Kids in Class

Tarek, Khalil, and Mohammed* are going back to school. They're sitting on red sofas in a small circle with a few other guys. They're speaking German. They're friendly and help each other when one of them can't express something. They use this somewhat confusing language boldly, code switching between English, German, and Arabic within seconds. “This is the first real school I'm allowed to attend in Germany”, says Omar*. The 16-year-old has short blond hair and is taller than the rest. He likes the curriculum at his new school: “in Syria we were 50 students to a class. We didn't have classes like art and sports, and even less time to reflect on what we learned than we do here”. (You can read more about the differences between the education systems of Germany and Syria in this article by our author Bara’a Inzar.)

Omar sits across from Khalil. The 17-year-old had to stop going to school in Aleppo because bombs were dropped on his way to school. This is the first time in the last eight months that he can consistently go to school. For others it’s even longer. Mohammed, who’s wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt, is just twelve years old and is in the 6th grade. He came to Germany two years ago with his grandparents; his parents are still in Turkey. He seems to feel comfortable in the circle of guys, all of which are older than him. Beaming, he tells the group that he doesn't think school in Germany is all that different from what school was like in Syria before the war. He even made new friends in just the first two weeks.

Out of the Forest

Almost all of them live in a shelter near the school. There isn't any public transportation they could use to get there. All of them came to Germany without their parents and they sometimes feel very alone. Because the refugee shelter is so close by, a number of the students went there near the end of November and made some first contacts – among other things, the twelfth grade organised a breakfast for people to get to know each other. Soon after, people picked them up in their cars and played football at school or took them to the Christmas Market.

Some of the teachers tried to implement the idea of integrating kids into their classes. German teacher Ursula Kirchdörfer and biology teacher Matthias Valentin were the concept’s primary initiators. In the end, the school’s administration agreed to everything. 

“The translator was translating wrong!”

The young refugees are aware of how important it is to learn German quickly. Somewhat irritated, the 17-year-old Tarek remembers one situation he was in with German officials. He understood German well enough to realise that the interpreter was twisting his words to, in his mind, place him in a more negative light. “The translator was translating wrong!” he says, outraged. Everyone then laughs and even Tarek has to grin. He’s still pretty quiet these days, but he understands and he’s learning and he wants to be able to speak for himself one day in the future.

Mudasser has the same goal. The 16-year-old Afghani sits on a chair further back in the circle. He doesn't speak Arabic. He often doesn't understand the other guys in the refugee shelter. Mudasser's doesn't like to be addressed in English: “only German please”, he says, smiling. Before this he had never been to a school. Since he was 13 years old he’s worked as a clock repairer and as a logger. Mudasser is very strong and was good at his job. Sitting in a classroom for a long time is sometimes difficult. But his teacher says that he’s always very motivated to learn. “Step by step”, he says, quoting the teacher and grinning.

Teaching Mutual Understanding

Other difficulties, such as the treatment of different genders, is brought up by them in their discussion as well. “A Moroccan colleague of mine explained the treatment of girls in the Middle East to the Syrian guys, and I myself am always available for the girls when they need to talk about cultural conflicts”, says Mrs. Kirchdörfer. And Mr. Valentin thinks this “is something that we have to keep in mind, but until now interactions have been very warmhearted and friendly”.

Jonas confirms this. The 17-year-old has four refugees in his class. “I think these guys naturally need to be integrated as best as possible. If problems arise you just need to take them aside, without making a big deal out of it”, he says. He’s come to learn that lecturing at them when there are misunderstandings in class isn't really effective. Whenever possible he, “wants to face misunderstandings with humor and then laugh together about those misunderstandings”.

*Names changed by the editors

You can read more about the Waldorf school’s integration concept in the article “From Students to World Citizens”. And in “One-by-one Integration” you can read about how students at the Waldorf school in Frankfurt (Oder) are taking people from other countries under their wings.

Katharina Fäßler
24 years old
. . . was impressed by how young and witty the guys were and by how maturely they spoke.