BERLIN – With September less than a month away, Miran Mohammad, a Syrian refugee who is supposed to start first grade this year, has not yet been able to register in a local school. Miran’s brother, Jan, who is two years older, was luckier and managed to secure a spot last June. But this was only possible after eight months of waiting from the time when the family arrived in Germany.
“Our main concern is for our children to have a good education,” said Miran and Jan’s father, Azzad Mohammad. “So we are very frustrated and disappointed.”
Miran, Jan and their younger sister Nazlin were among the 284,000 children aged 17 or younger who applied for asylum in Germany between 2012 and 2015 – amounting to 31 percent of total applications during that time period. The trend continued in the first half of this year, during which nearly 30 percent of asylum applicants in Germany were under 16 years old.
According to German law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children residing in the country should have access to education, regardless of their legal status. But following the dramatic influx of asylum seekers that came to the country in 2015, some municipalities are struggling to find school spaces and teachers for the school-age refugee children that they have absorbed.
“The school system was not prepared for this amount of new students,” said Marlis Tepe, the president of the German Education Union. “We have 16 federal states and these 16 governments have to hire something like 25,000 new teachers, but there are not enough teachers, and in some regions it is difficult to find.”
Tepe added that throughout Germany about 14,000 new teachers have already been trained and hired. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, which plays a significant role in coordinating and developing education services in Germany, anticipates lofty costs to meet the needs. An additional 2.3 billion euros ($2.6 billion) will be needed to accommodate refugees. Most of this funding will go toward training teachers and expanding school facilities.
In Berlin, where more than 20,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been attending public schools, about 1,100 teachers were hired for “welcoming classes,” which provide pupils with German language skills. Nevertheless, there are still acute shortages.
“We need hundreds of teachers and educators only for these refugee kids, and we do not have them,” said Arnold Mengelkoch, who works as a migration officer in Neukolln, a borough of Berlin.
Mengelkoch explained that another barrier refugee children face is that many live in improvised facilities like gyms or convention halls, where conditions are not ideal for students to do homework or maintain a normal life. About half of the 3,000 refugees in Neukolln are accommodated in such facilities. The Mohammad siblings faced similar challenges during their first eight months in Germany.
One of the biggest housing facilities in Berlin is the International Congress Center (ICC), which used to be one of the largest conference centers in the world. Today, it is home to 600 refugees. The refugees live in ceilingless cubicles that are 16x16ft (5x5m) in size, clustered together in an expansive hall with no windows, and hence no natural light. About 150 minors live in the ICC facility and 90 of them are already enrolled in German schools. The rest are waiting for the Berlin municipality to find schools for them, according to Matthias Nowak of Malteser International – a Catholic nonprofit organization that manages the facility.
In working with hundreds of families, Nowak has observed that when children join German schools it is an “integration motor” for the whole family.
“It is a boost for integration if the children are in schools because they motivate their parents to learn German faster and to get connected to other Germans living in the neighborhood,” he explained.
Long-Term Yields of Education
Integrating refugee children in schools is not only a moral and legal obligation, but also a wise economic investment, according to Thomas Liebig, a senior migration specialist for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Liebig said that Germany’s decision to allocate large budgets toward creating classrooms and training teachers might seem like a financial burden now, but that the future payoff will be multifold. The skills that the refugee children acquire at school will make it easier for them to integrate in the German labor market when they are adults, Liebig explained. He added there are also some immediate socioeconomic benefits to investing in the education system.
“When the children are going into school, then the parents will have more time for their own integration activities – to find a job and so on,” Liebig said.
But integration activities have been mostly out of reach for adult refugees. Azzad Mohammad and his wife Avin, the parents of Miran and Jan, would also like to learn the language in order to qualify for a greater pool of jobs. While Azzad has started attending a German course, for Avin finding the time has been a big constraint.
“I have to take care of the children,” she said.
At the beginning of the summer the family finally moved out of the gym into a different refugee housing facility. Though the new home is not a gym, it is not much of an improvement either. The family now lives in a one-room flat, without a bathroom or a kitchen.
For now, when the eldest son Jan needs to do his homework, he sits by the dinner table that has been squeezed into a corner of the single-room home, while his siblings who are not yet in school play beside him.
“This is not really an environment to learn and to study,” Azzad said. The family hopes that this condition is temporary.
Desperate to move out of these types of refugee housing, many like the Mohammad family hope that they can live in real homes, with a means of living and a semblance of permanence and “normality” in the near future.