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Teaching Refugee Children: Insights From a Volunteer in Germany

By Angie McPherson

March 28, 2016

Over the past year, more than one million refugees have entered into Europe. One of the major challenges faced by countries impacted by the influx of people, is educating and taking care of the children and youth who have come onto the continent.

Picture of a refugee child

Mohamed (2) is one of three brothers living in a temporary camp for refugees in Germany. Photograph by UNICEF

United Nations agencies have been working to help provide support for these children, many of whom are orphans. (Read some of the ways you can help support families in crisis.) However more help will be needed for the many children and families still in crisis in the region.

As of December 2015, as many as 196,000 asylum seekers within school age entered into Germany. In order to get a better sense of what life is like inside the refugee conflict, we reached out to Carolina Nth, a volunteer working with refugee children in Bonn, Germany.

Tell me what life is like inside of Germany right now. How have things changed?

It’s very tense: every German state must accept a certain number of refugees. The government is tracking the number of refugees in each state to ensure we have the right amount of support for educating, feeding, and housing.

It is getting more difficult to find housing. We don’t have enough rooms for the people come in. The system for determining housing for refugees families is similar to the lottery. Sometimes the state will put a family in a hotel room, other times they will put them in local camps; but all refugee children that come into Germany must get an education.

How many refugee students are in your class?

In the school where I volunteer, we currently have 30 or more refugee students. I have between 13 to 18 refugees in my class. As a volunteer I help to teach kids how to read and write in German. Without that it’s difficult to get integrated into German life.

We are receiving refugees from all over the world, including Syria, Albania, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Many of them are coming without parents; either their parents have died, or sent their children ahead to Europe in order find safety.

Photograph of refugee children in Germany

Girls play with dolls at the refugee shelter at Templehof Airfield in Berlin. Photograph by UNICEF/UN04026/Gilbertson VII Photo

What are some of the challenges with having refugee children in the school system?

We don’t have enough teachers to help teach the children. Ideally, these kids would have a tutor to help teach them German one-on-one.

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Also there is a noticeable cultural disparity among some of the children. For example, a young boy once told me that he didn’t have to listen to me because I’m a woman. We taught him that in our country we treat women very differently — the children learn quickly and it’s good for them to experience different cultural norms.

What would you like to tell people about your experience working with refugee children?

There is a lot of hatred towards refugees. What I’ve learned is that each child is different. The more we reach out to them, the more we can learn about the kind of life they’ve suffered before reaching Europe.

There’s a young girl in my class who lost her family in Iraq. She’s normally very quiet in class, but she shared her story with me after learning she could trust me. It’s not easy to suffer so much loss, it’s not easy to talk about it. Being able to make that personal connection, to share a little bit of their life, is one step to help them back on their feet.

At the end of the day, we’re all people, and these people deserve to be safe. These children deserve to be taught.

Picture of refugee children playing at a stadium in Berlin, Germany

Children play at an emergency shelter at Olympia Stadium in Berlin, Germany.Photograph by UNICEF/UNI200006/Gilbertson VII Photo

This interview was condensed and edited.

Here’s How You Can Help

Lead photo of the Yousef’ family, refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic. They arrived in Germany in October 2015 after traveling for six weeks via Turkey. Photograph by UNICEF//UNI201093/Etges

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