Steep learning curve for refugees in Germany

When Abdullah Yassouf, a Syrian from Homs, arrived in Germany, one of his top priorities was to enrol his daughter Zena in a German university as soon as possible.

Twelve months have passed and 18-year-old Zena – who hopes to become a dentist or a medical engineer – is not yet enrolled in any higher education establishment.

Upon arrival in Germany, the Yassoufs had to wait nearly six months for their asylum claim to be processed. Zena was granted refugee status and a residence permit – a requirement to enrol in most academic institutions. Abdullah then spent months trying to track down certificates from schools Zena attended in Syria and Turkey, in order to be able to prove that she had completed her high school education. Abdullah paid hundreds of euros to get these documents and translate them from Arabic and Turkish into German. Finally, four weeks ago, Zena and Abdullah delivered the last of the required certificates to Uni-Assist – the German association responsible for evaluating international school and university certificates. Now they must wait for a reply.

“The procedures take a long time in Germany,” a frustrated Abdullah Yassouf told IRIN from a refugee housing facility in Hamburg. “I thought in Syria we had complicated procedures, but actually in Germany it is more complicated than in Syria.”

Too many obstacles

The obstacles the Yassoufs are facing are a common experience for refugees in Germany, according to Norbert Trosien, a protection officer with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Berlin. Trosien told IRIN that a lack of certificates – as well as language barriers and the incompatibility of education systems worldwide – cause major delays that undermine the motivation of refugees hoping to further their education in Germany. 
 
“Refugees bring a lot of potential to their country of refuge,” Trosien said, pointing out that it is in host societies’ interest to offer refugees the chance to fulfil that potential.

Germany’s labour market is short of 140,000 engineers, programmers and technicians, according to the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA) – an umbrella organisation representing interest groups in industry, trade and other sectors. Ulrich Grillo, head of the Federal Association of German Industry, recently told AFP that if Germany can integrate refugees quickly into the job market – “We'll be helping the refugees, but also helping ourselves as well." But many of the refugees will need to begin or complete studies interrupted by their flight from their home countries before they can start competing for jobs. 

There are currently no reliable figures for how many refugees in Germany are enrolled in higher education, according to Thomas Böhm of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), an association representing the vast majority of the country’s higher education institutions. But Böhm said that hundreds of refugees had come to recent events held at university campuses seeking information about how to enrol. 

The HRK has joined with the BDA and the Federal Association of German Industry (the BDI) to demand that the government quickly addresses the obstacles to refugees accessing higher education, such as the need for residence permits and financial assistance. Böhm told IRIN that German academic institutions feel a social responsibility to help integrate refugees, and are equipped to do so.

“At universities, we have language courses, we have bridging courses, and we have special study preparation courses,” he said. “So the real challenge is to support these existing structures financially. The universities need financial support to offer all these courses and all these programmes for the expected high number of refugee students.”

Tuition for universities in Germany is free – or very low cost – for refugees, as it is for all students. The additional funding from the state is needed in order to allow universities to create more language training and preparatory courses, according to HRK’s president Prof. Dr. Horst Hippler, who said in a recent press release that the cost of funding these courses for one refugee is approximately 4,000 euros per year.

The Kiron alternative

The German government expects to spend roughly eight billion euros in 2016 on managing the record influx of asylum seekers. About half of that budget will be allocated to the country’s 16 federal states, to provide housing, welfare and education for the 758,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since the beginning of the year. However, it is not yet clear how much of that funding will be used to make higher education more accessible to refugees and asylum seekers – like Kirollos and Andrew Mousa, twin brothers from Egypt who came to Germany in March 2014.

The Mousa twins fled their home country for political reasons. They are former students of Cairo University but cannot apply to continue their studies at a German university because they are still awaiting a decision on their asylum applications and lack the necessary long-term residence permits. 

But even without residence permits, they have managed to become students. They recently registered with Kiron University, a new non-profit initiative that aims to provide refugees with the opportunity to study for a recognised degree free of charge through a combination of online and offline courses. 

Kiron has partnered with academic institutions throughout Germany as well as with American universities such as Harvard and Yale to offer courses in English and German. Kiron students also have access to psychosocial support and mentoring through a network of volunteers.

“We have lots of partners that give us full access to their facilities so our students can always go there, use the computer rooms, take workshops at that university,” explained Markus Kreßler, a co-founder of Kiron University.

In contrast to other higher education institutions in Germany, the only requirement for acceptance to Kiron University is proof of being an asylum seeker or a recognised refugee.

So far, Kiron has crowd-funded scholarships for 197 refugees, including the Mousa twins.

Kirollos will take online courses via Kiron University for the next two years and then study on-campus at a partner university during his third and final year. The enthusiastic 22-year-old has already succeeded in learning to speak German fluently, and intends to make the most of this opportunity.

“At first I think I have to work on my English skills,” he said. “And then I would love to try a business degree programme.”

“When you don't go to university, you are kind of a nobody. When you go to university you have a chance to earn proper money to become someone.”

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