Learning to belong

Germany's so-called 'integration courses' are supposed to teach new arrivals the basics of local language, life and culture to help them find a job and become active members of their adopted society. But why aren't these classes working?

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Illustration by Dom Okah
Germany’s so-called ‘integration courses’ are supposed to teach new arrivals the basics of local language, life and culture to help them find a job and become active members of their adopted society. But why aren’t these classes working? Fatima* is devastated. For the second time, she has failed her level B1.2 German language exam, missing two vital marks in the written test. She’s not alone: in 2016, more than half of all participants who signed up for an Integrationskurs (integration course) in Germany flunked out. We are sitting in Fatima’s Kreuzberg home. Her husband, Jamal, sits next to her; he has failed the language exam three times already, so he also can’t move on to the ‘orientation course’, which mostly covers German politics and recent history. Fatima, who worked as a nurse in Syria, is attending morning classes, while Jamal, a mechanic in his home country, is in school every afternoon to ensure one of them can always drop off and pick up their children, two boys and two girls, from school and kindergarten. After arriving in Germany from Syria in autumn 2015, the family spent more than two years in a refugee camp in Berlin before they managed to rent an apartment that could house their four children and meet the requirements set by social services. Granted asylum, the family now has a three-year residence permit. “We would like to be able to start a life here, to find work, earn our own money, and not be dependent on the country and the goodwill of people. But as long as we haven’t completed the courses, we won’t be able to do that,” says Jamal. In Germany, integration courses are run by the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF), Germany’s federal department for migration and refugees. They usually consist of 600 language lessons and a 100-hour orientation course, and are an important first step for newcomers when it comes to getting a job and fitting into their new culture. Failing to attend is officially sanctioned with a minimum cut of social allowances by one-third (the uncut benefits being €352 in the first 15 months after applying for asylum). “We know how important the integration courses are and we are grateful for them. But to learn a new language with a new alphabet as a grown man is not easy!” explains Jamal in broken, but understandable German. A third of all integration courses are Alphabetisierungskurse (literacy classes), designed for people with little or no knowledge of Latin letters. An extra 300 lessons are supposed to get participants up to an A2.2 level. Students with previous learning experience can quickly switch to a regular integration course, like Fatima and Jamal did, and ultimately attain the required B1 level. Many attendees of integration courses share Fatima and Jamal’s struggle with the language – they are mostly refugees from Syria, but also Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea or Iran, with little previous knowledge of the Latin alphabet, and from vastly different cultural and academic backgrounds. (According to official numbers from 2014, about one-quarter of participants of the integration courses had a high school degree; nine percent had a university degree; and 26 percent had no degree at all.) Not an easy task for the 20,000 teachers who have have been hired across Germany. But who are they? According to Daniela Haslecker, a friendly Bavarian with 20 years of experience teaching German as a foreign language, many are experienced teachers in their 50s or 60s, looking to supplement their meager wage or pension with the €35 per hour offered by state-funded establishments (in some private schools it can be as little as €20). Since 2012, she’s been leading additional qualification courses – which are a common BAMF requirement for teachers wanting to work in integration courses – and observed a lack of motivation; “In my experience, 50 percent of the people taking the extra qualifications are motivated, the other 50 percent only sit through them to get the certificate,” says Haslecker, who stresses the extra challenge of teaching refugees, many of whom have traumatic backstories. Teachers are offered additional training workshops on cultural differences or working with traumatised people, but since it’s not obligatory, too few bother taking them: “Integration courses aren’t classes in business English or Excel, and the official curriculum stresses the importance of a safe atmosphere in order to learn properly. So it’s really too bad that so few people take the additional training,” says Haslecker. A further issue is that many started giving German courses in the 1980s or 1990s when the diploma for ‘German as a Second Language’ didn’t even exist, says Haslecker, and so they have also missed out on important educational reforms of the last decades – yet, official teaching materials for integration courses are structured around exactly those contemporary methods. Which might lead to misunderstandings: Mujahid*, a trained dentist from Syria who is currently doing the integration course, says: “We learned that (German) men only want to watch football and never talk about their emotions, and (German) women buy shoes! People I know in Damascus have less gender prejudices than that!” The relevant chapter in his course book is supposed to spark a discussion in class, guided by the teacher. Yet no debate followed, so the lesson ended with the puzzled students thinking those were, in fact, the values Germans live by. Gosia* is a lovely lady, she really is…” Fatima begins, referring to her former German integration teacher who is originally from Poland. “However, she has a very heavy accent that was very difficult for me to understand, and often there was no time to ask her to repeat what she said.” Fatima often wonders whether she could have had a more successful experience had her German teacher actually been a native speaker. Gosia doesn’t even try to argue the fact that she was unfit for the task. The 36-year-old came to Germany when she was 18 with the aim of completing a degree in literature and German studies and returning home to Poland to teach. “But then I met my husband at university and ended up staying. I knew that as a non-native speaker, I would have a hard time finding a job at a public school. When the Volkshochschule started looking for teachers, I applied and they accepted me. I had no experience teaching German, but I had completed the German as a second language course and I was glad to help refugees,” she says. Under current law, Gosia would most likely have had to undertake another 70-140 lessons of extra qualifications, on top of her original bachelor’s degree, yet BAMF’s reaction to the sudden rise in migrants was simply to issue temporary teaching permits in 2015. Valid until December 2017, these permits allowed successful applicants to start teaching integration courses straight away, with no further qualifications asked for – a move that immediately raised the number of teachers but didn’t exactly improve quality standards. BAMF officials would not provide us with details on how many people got these temporary permits and whether they had any qualifications at all. Ultimately, Gosia found the large class sizes meant she was unable to deal with each student individually. “I also got many complaints that my students couldn’t understand me well enough. I wasn’t the right person. So I quit,” she says without resentment. Gosia is critical of the system, though. “I understand that the pressure [of the 2015 refugee influx] was huge, and they needed a lot more teachers– and fast. But the numbers are clearly showing that it’s not working. This system has failed,” she says. “How is anyone supposed to become fluent in a language in 600 jam-packed 45-minute lessons, anyway? So perhaps it’s time to rethink?” The numbers do indeed speak for themselves. Last year, over half of the integration course participants failed the final B1 exam. Meanwhile schools running integration courses get €3,90 per participant and lesson, i.e. €97.50 per class (assuming 25 attendees, the maximum prescribed by the BAMF) or €2,730 per student for a full 700-class integration course. In many cases it’s enough to keep a school running. Furthermore, taking into consideration that students are allowed to repeat up to 300 lessons, which about 18 percent of all participants did last year, failed tests are not a loss for everyone: it means extra money for the schools, providing little incentive to improve the quality of teaching. All of this has led to a depressing situation: asylum seekers scared of getting less government support if they fail; frustrated teachers who don’t always see the positive results of their work; and disappointed leaders who, faced with declining public support for their asylum policy, are eager to see refugees contributing as tax-paying workers. Back in her Kreuzberg flat, Fatima is going through the test results again and again, just like her husband did a couple of weeks ago. They are looking for a mistake in the grading – or rather hoping for one, which would mean she could have those extra two points and pass. “I want to be part of this society. I miss working and would love to resume my work as a nurse here. But how?” Like many others who have failed modules of the integration course, Fatima feels stuck. Repeating lessons means she doesn’t yet have the chance to immerse herself into everyday life in Germany – not to mention the frustration of sitting through school as an adult (and, in many cases, still coming home to a refugee center). Ironically, for Fatima and Jamal it seems that instead of being a stepping stone, the integration course system is a hindrance to becoming a part of German society. Fatima’s new teacher is a young native speaker but he doesn’t seem to care too much, says Fatima. Meanwhile she worries about her sick father back in Syria, about their future in Germany, about their children finding their place in a new society. “I will have another try, I will practice more, I will succeed, I need to!” *Names have been changed to protect privacy
Integration Classes in Numbers* 356,686 attendees nationwide 22,654 attendees in Berlin 20,000 teachers across Germany 1,736 schools across Germany 102 schools in Berlin 48.7 percent of students don’t reach the required B1 level 25 participants allowed per class 3.90 euros allocated to schools per lesson/participant Participants According to Nationalities* 1 Syria 34,6% 2 other 25,4% 3 Iraq 9,4% 4 Afghanistan 6,9% 5 Eritrea 4,2% 6 Iran 4,1% 7 Romania 3,9% 8 Bulgaria 3,1% 9 Poland 2,6% 10 Turkey 2,4% 11 Somalia 2,2% *BAMF 2017