Racism is easy, Integration is hard
You may have heard that the European Union is currently being overrun by Syrian refugees. Like, a full million of them. Just to give you a sense of proportion, as little as 508 million EU citizens have to cope with as many refugees as all those 4,7 million citizens of the Lebanon! Imagine the horrors…
What you may not have heard is that I recently started working at what would be comparable to a US middle school. I teach 6th, 8th and 9th grade English as a Foreign Language. Among my students are recent refugees, many of them being kids who fled all the way all alone. While they’re in a so-called “Welcome Class” where they learn German, they also take part in some of the regular classes so they can be integrated into the classes, depending on the subject and their progress in German.
English can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the age of the students. The older ones often already had some English back in their homes, learned some more during their flight. They are used to using English as a lingua franca, it’s easier to communicate in English with them than in German and they enjoy being able to participate in class like the others.
It’s a different story with the younger kids: They’ve been out of school for a long time due to war and flight, exactly at the time when their German peers started their English education.
Add a half baked (I still miss part of my teacher training) teacher who gets thrown into this mess in the middle of term and you can imagine a less than optimal situation. For the first two weeks I struggled to get my feet on the ground, get a grip on what they were supposed to be doing and dealt with tons of disruptive behaviour (some kids smell your insecurities). I didn’t pay much attention to the two very quiet Syrian boys apart from a few feeble attempts to get them to do <i>anything</i>, no matter what.
As I finally got books, got to know the classes and cleared the backlog of ungraded exams my predecessor left me I decided that this could not go on. I talked to one of my colleagues who is responsible for the Welcome Class and therefore also my two students about them and she got one of the older kids to act as an interpreter. Of course English is specifically hard for them. They missed the first year and half of teaching their peers got and when there’s a question we’ll fall back to German. And they simply lack the material.
It also turns out that kids are kids, even after they fled a civil war and walk across two continents. While one of them was not unhappy with the situation where he was simply left alone without anything to do, the other one was keen on learning, but also trapped with his pal, the only other person in the classroom who understands him. I cannot provide them with remedial classes, but there are things I can do:
First of all, copy them the material from the books (f… copyright), buy two plastic folders, put everything inside along with some paper to write on (no more excuses!). Second, even more important: Assign them two English buddies. Since last week they sit next to those buddies during English. Their buddies are responsible for showing them where we are and what they are supposed to do and help them with doing it. I had many volunteers for this position. My buddies are neither the best nor the best behaved kids in class. My hope is that their new responsibility will give them a kick as well. I’m seeing the first results. I got them to say their first sentences in class, they got to hear their first “well done”. The buddy who had some behaviour problems is too busy to misbehave. It’s not perfect, but also breaks their social isolation in class. For at least 4 hours a week they need to interact with each other.
I like to turn the question over to you, because I can always learn a thing or two: What are your experiences with integration?