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A school called Sophie: On the frontlines of education for teenage refugees in Berlin

Simon Thacker's picture
Also available in: العربية | Français
 rkl_foto l shutterstock.comIt has taken almost three years for Adnan to get back to school. After fleeing Syria, and an uncertain stay in Turkey, then another in Austria, he and his mother finally found asylum in Berlin in June.

It is his first week in class. He sits at the back, behind 11 students, taking in the scene. He listens and watches but doesn’t understand a word of what the teacher is saying in German. It is exhilarating to be there, nonetheless. At 15 years old, he is already tall and well-built. He is too big for his desk.

It’s almost as if he has grown up too quickly.

Instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has had a devastating effect on secondary education in particular. It is hard to obtain enrollment data specific to adolescent refugees in MENA but globally 76% of registered refugees enroll in elementary school and just 36% in high school (Dryden-Peterson 2011). The enrolment of adolescent refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey is certainly much lower than this. Yet, this is precisely the population most susceptible to the worst forms of exploitation—early marriage, human trafficking, unfair labor practices, political and religious radicalization, and recruitment into terrorist and militant groups. It is also the population most capable of benefiting from learning. Assessments that the Sophie Scholl school conducted upon Adnan’s arrival show that he reads and writes at an above elementary level. That he even has this is good news. There are two groups in the school: Adnan should be in the “new to Germany” class but that is generally reserved for the younger, 11–13 year old group. He would look completely out of place there, so the decision has been taken to keep him with the intermediate group, many of whom are his age.

The students have 31 hours of class a week, with 26 hours of those devoted to German language and culture—the simple idea being that the ability to communicate in German and an understanding of life in Germany is essential to later studies and for inclusion in as a citizen in Germany. This is the only objective the Berlin school board sets for these classes: that in one year all students reach a level of basic communication equivalent to level B1 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR)—even if that is an unrealistic target for many.

The class is animated this morning. Three of the boys are trying to explain that they would like class to stop for prayer time. Nicole, their teacher, understands this wish but responds that public schools cannot do so. It is challenging for her to explain why in simple German. The notion of secularity, the separation of church and state, is not easy to communicate. The distinction is not clear to the students, either. One boy has stood up and is speaking heatedly in Arabic while making for the door.
But this is a good morning.

With a class of such different levels, ages, and abilities, teaching becomes quite challenging. “There is usually no center to the class, no set of students that I can look to, to keep the class rolling along,” explains Nicole. “It feels like I am individually tutoring each student, but all at the same time, if you see what I mean. It isn’t easy at all.”
This morning’s discussion was a rare exception. Almost all of the students were trying to express their point of view and make themselves understood, mostly in German. “It was great,” Nicole says. “The issue is clearly important. The school will have to find an answer.”

Sophie Scholl middle and high school has always looked for a mix in the composition of its student body. A public school that serves the Schöneberg neighborhood in Berlin, it also accepts students from across the city to create a mixed student body of various backgrounds, ethn

For all their differences, the new students are just like any other students their age, Nicole explains. She confiscates their phones each morning, otherwise they would be WhatsApp-ing each other, checking Bundesliga soccer results, or taking selfies. But, as far as the school is concerned, academic success really comes when students have enough basic German to join regular classes in other subjects, like math or the sciences, because this shows the newcomers that they are really part of the community. A few students make it this far, and a few even go on to technical or vocational high schools in the city, where they will learn a skill or a trade.

But many don’t succeed: some simply can’t catch up, some are too troubled by what they have lived through, and some drop out to work or stay home to help out.
The mission is challenging, but Sophie Scholl is a good example of how a school can respond to the refugee crisis. In refugee education, the immediate priority is often younger students. Provision for older students may come second.

There are many other barriers for adolescents trying to return to school. Work may be the most pressing, but others are: a shortage of space in high schools, the language barrier, complex registration requirements, other legal questions, direct and associated costs for families, and even discrimination. There are also significant personal challenges for this age group: neither young nor old, trying to pick up sometimes years after where they left off, their motivation needed to study may be lost.

Each case is unique and the contexts diverse, requiring a response that recognizes this and does not turn solely to conventional approaches. With this age group, it is very difficult for aid providers to reach all those in need, whether governments, United Nations organizations, or NGOs.

If Sophie Scholl School is one of the more structured responses available, informal learning that takes place at home, sometimes online, offers great flexibility. Non-formal education, organized much like a classroom in a non-school setting, also holds great promise.
Educating young adults like Adnan, who could otherwise become part of a lost generation, is an urgent priority for the World Bank.