Refugee Education Waiting Game

The thousands of young refugees flooding into Germany could become a valuable resource with the proper training, but a visit to a vocation school in Berlin reveals a frustrating and cumbersome German education system.
Refugees studying engineering at one of about 60 welcoming classes in Berlin's vocational schools.


Youssef bends over a worksheet and sighs, “I did that for a year already. Instead of 'I offer the friend the tea,' it is 'I offer it to him.' ”

The dark blond Syrian sits in the third row of the advanced welcome class on the third floor of the vocational high school center of automotive engineering in the Charlottenburg area of Berlin. Frustrated by the grammar exercises, the young man from a small city near Damascus wrinkles his face. He knows the answers. In Syria, he was in the eleventh grade. He and his mother have lived here for a year and eight months at the home of an aunt, who has lived in Berlin for decades.

The vocational high school (OSZ) in Charlottenburg is Youssef's fourth school in Germany. His teacher recognizes he is under-challenged and impatient. “I will speak with the principal,” promised Matthias Ziervogel. “Maybe you won't be here much longer.” A few weeks ago, Youssef's Syrian certificates were recognized as an intermediate level education. Perhaps he can move into a high school class, but that prospect remains unclear. Youssef doesn’t know what would be better: Earn a diploma or learn mechatronics?

There are no guidelines or models in the organization of the welcome classes.

The 19-year-old, who works in the children's clothing area of Berlin's notorious central admitting facility Lageso (Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs), is part of the “giant potential” Ingo Kramer, president of the Association of Employers, refers to when he speaks of immigrants. Of the 425,035 refugees who reached Germany by November and have applied for asylum, 112,461 are children under 16 years of age. About 120,000 are between 16 and 25, the right age to begin a vocational education.

The economy could use them. Nationwide, 41,000 apprenticeships remain unfilled, particularly bakers, butchers and apprentices in gastronomy. And that’s just the beginning. Within 15 years, the German economy will lack up to 1.7 million non-academic specialists, according to the German Institute for Vocational Training.

Whether the young refugees can fill those holes depends on how quickly they can be integrated. And also how teachers like Youssef's work with him and his fellow students to help them manage the leap into training.


Quelle: Marc-Steffen Unger
Matthias Ziervogel, a German teacher.


There are 60 welcome classes with more than 600 students in Berlin's 28 vocational schools with another further 30 classes planned. OSZ principal Ronald Rahmig, who also serves on the board of the Berlin vocational school principals, expects another 1,000 refugees in this school year.

How many are excpected across Germany is difficult to estimate. For example, the ministry of schools in North Rhine-Westphalia doesn’t have an accurate overview because the numbers are constantly changing. The conference of the Minister of Education and the Arts cannot offer even a rough estimate. But if Berlin figures are high, there could soon be 20,000 students in the welcome classes the vocational schools are running across Germany.

Regardless, the Berlin coordination point for young adults sends all refugees 16 or older to a vocational school. Those who don’t have concrete plans for a profession are recommended for the closest OSZ.

That’s how Youssef came to the advanced welcome class of automotive technology at OSZ. Students learn about German values, work to improve their German language skills and study car repairs. When one student arrived late, for example, specialist teacher Ivica Ziemann had a serious conversation with him. “In Germany, you have to be on time,” she said. “Punctuality is reliability. If we have work and are not on time, we can forget it, say goodbye.”



Eva Eschler, who teaches the second welcome class with German beginners, has a background in adult education. She has created colored folders for her seven students, which include Afghans, Albanians, Syrians and Eritreans. “Order is half the battle,” she said. “That is clean, good, a system.” The students choose from blue for regional studies, red for German or yellow for math.

The refugees are learning a new language and a new culture, but what excites them is the prospect of gaining experience in automotive technology, first in the classroom and soon in the workshop. “In an ideal case, they could start real training during this year,” Mr. Ziemann said.

Welcome classes have been meeting since October. In addition to Youssef, there are four Afghans, two Syrians and one each from Poland, Lebanon, Bulgaria and Vietnam who speak German reasonably well. A Syrian girl was enrolled, but did not return after the fall break. Teachers suspect her family was not happy to send her into a man's world.

Today, Mr. Ziemann presents a practical challenge to the young men: giant Lego technology packages of a Mercedes truck with 2,900 parts. “Can we finish building that today?” Youssef asked. Laughing, Mr. Ziemann responded it might take three months. Their eyes light up as they concentrate on the work in silence for an hour and a half, when the school bell rings. It may not sound like much of a job but the exercise is a preliminary stage in preparing them to work on engines.

They work on the model in teams of two to learn teamwork. Youssef's partner is Samer from Afghanistan. Mr. Ziemann mixes nationalities on purpose, so the students must speak German with each other.

Mr. Ziemann is well prepared for his position. He speaks Arabic and “a bit of Persian.” “They know that I understand when they joke around and make fun,” he said, noting his language skills foster respect. The automotive technologist and economist operated vocational training as a development aide for ten years in the Middle East, most recently in a large refugee center in Palestine. “I'm pretty much doing the same thing here with the refugees,” he said, noting he also used Lego puzzles in Palestine.

There are no guidelines or models in the organization of the welcome classes. New students can arrive at any time. Mr. Rahmig, the principal, said the school will open a third welcome class in February, but the distribution among the two existing classes is not yet set. Additionally, students are often missing because they must go to the offices again.

The level is extremely mixed. In part, the young men are clearly under challenged. Matthias Ziervogel,, German teacher

Without a statutory framework curriculum, Mr. Rahmig said, “We have worked on a curriculum ourselves, on the basis of our experiences.”

There wasn’t much time for preparation. Mr. Rahmig was first asked if he could set up refugee classes last summer, just weeks before the traditional start of school. He was lucky to find enough instructors. “Now, the market for German teachers has been swept clean,” he said.

The German teacher at the OSZ, Matthias Ziervogel, studied German and philosophy and had various education jobs, but now not only teaches young asylum applicants the proper usage of pronouns, but also plays soccer or ping pong with them. In German classes, the students pepper him with questions: Why can Catholic priests not marry, but Protestant ministers can? Whether “geklaut,” which translates to stolen, is slang. With the word “Geschichte,” which translates to both story and history, Salah, from Syria, responds with “Little Red Riding Hood” while his classmate counters with “Stalingrad, the First World War.”

Other students look on, astounded. “The level is extremely mixed,” said Mr. Ziervogel. “In part, the young men are clearly under challenged.”

The 32-year-old teacher finds it problematic that there is not even a German certificate for the students at the end of a welcome class. “Then they have to do that for €80 at the Goethe-Institut,” he said.

Mr. Rahmig said there was a possibility of a language level assessment that's carried out by the teachers. He added, “That gives the more successful students a base but does not frustrate those who are less successful.”

Students don’t speak of any traumatic experiences enroute to Germany. When classes began, they spoke of their home countries “with great pride, that became very emotional,” said Mr. Ziemann. Teachers are reluctant to explore the students' experiences fleeing their countries, fearing it may be too painful for them and also that the educators could respond incorrectly without proper training.

The future is uncertain for the integration classes. Those who learn enough German in the welcome class could, for example, move into an “Integrated vocational training preparation (IBA)” class. That’s the name of the reservoir of students in Berlin who are ready for training. They have found no apprenticeships yet and have other professional deficits, but the refugees certainly don’t lack for motivation. “On average, it is clearly higher than in other courses of education,” Mr. Rahmig said.


Ivica Ziemann, a specialist teacher who works with refugee students. Souce: Marc-Steffen Unger


Specialist teacher Mr. Ziemann worries the process takes much too long, frustrating students and prompting many to look for work that will pay off quickly rather than sticking with the studies to become a specialist. When that occurs, their “giant potential” remains untapped. Using his numerous business contacts, Mr. Ziemann could place a Ghanaian in an apprenticeship, for example. “Such youths develop well in the workplace,” he said. “But it shouldn't be the case that the professional future of these youths depends on whether their teacher happens to know a company. This is something that should be organized systematically. The administration must quickly come up with something there.”

The impatience Mr. Ziemann refers to can be seen in Youssef and many of his fellow students. Samer, a 17-year-old Afghan who sits next to Youssef in class, operated a small store in Kabul. After fleeing his homeland, he spent months in a prison in Macedonia. He finished junior high school in Hamburg, but his mother is ill and so they moved to Berlin. “Because it is easier here to find an apartment,” he said. After the Berlin school authority put him off for two months, he followed the tip of a friend and applied at the OSZ automotive engineering school in Charlottenburg. He has a clear goal: “The intermediate education exam and then an apprenticeship.” He also is taking a German class in addition to the welcome class.

“But waiting is difficult,” Samer said. “I want it to go faster. God willing.”


Barbara Gillmann covers politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin, focusing on education, research, family policy and demographic development. To contact the author: [email protected].