Helping refugee students to build bridges in Germany


Mariana, a Syrian refugee, struggled to navigate her way through German bureaucracy to study at Humboldt University in Berlin. So did Sameer, an Afghan who fled his country as the Taliban targeted locals who worked with foreigners. Both got help from NGOs but say Germany’s integration policies should be more “welcoming”.

When she first arrived in Germany in 2014, Mariana said she “needed a friend who could speak German. This was a barrier – there were so many complications with changes to my legal status, my rights as a refugee, and the funding options available to me.

‘’I waited in lines for hours, only to find out that the person dealing with my case did not or could not speak any other language but German,” Mariana, 25, told Equal Times.

After her funding was rejected, she found two law students through the Willkommen Flüchtlinge (Refugees Welcome) initiative who offered to accompany her to the relevant offices. She feels relatively settled now but says she owes this to the kindness of activists rather than the efficacy of state institutions.

Sameer’s drama has lasted decades and continues. He asked not to be identified by his real name, fearful of being returned to Afghanistan under a controversial new European Union policy, which seeks to repatriate tens of thousands of failed Afghan asylum seekers from EU member states.

During the Soviet-Afghan war, Sameer’s family fled to Pakistan. He then moved to India as a teenager and acquired a diploma in business administration, before returning to Kabul to work as a travel agent and marketing manager for a high-profile airline.

While Kabul’s few travel agencies work closely with internationals, the job makes it a prime target for extortion, intimidation and harassment. “Our boss used to walk around with a massive security detail, while the staff members were subject to routine threats from the Taliban,” he said.

Sameer and some of his colleagues decided to use their embassy contacts to flee to Germany, where his application process is still ongoing.

Despite bureaucratic hurdles, cultural shocks and personal setbacks, he has been able to benefit from the wide network of formal and informal initiatives mobilised after Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed more than 850,000 refugees to enter Germany in 2015.

Sameer managed to avoid the fate of the hundreds of thousands condemned to making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. However, the fate of other Afghans – like Sameer’s brother who is desperately trying to join his family in Germany from Lithuania – weighs heavy on his psychological state.

Cultural resistance

Sameer is currently enrolled in a graduate social sciences program at the Humboldt University in Berlin. The program is carried out in English, giving him an opportunity he calls ’’a golden chance.’’

Sameer recalls a previous sour experience with a private university in Berlin where he had applied for a coveted place in a prestigious business program.
Sameer believes the university made unfair excuses to reject his application, “because being a refugee with no answers on your application scares the admission department of the universities as to whether they should enroll you or not.”

“I felt angry and very disappointed and went to ASTRA, the Berlin student council to ask them for legal help. I met a lawyer there and we decided to go to court,” said Sameer. He is currently waiting for legal aid.

For Sameer, Germany’s labour market is also culturally insular, demanding not only a diversity of skills but also a certain type of social capital. “I can easily say from my personal experience that refugees are seen as lesser workers – we are not considered for proper jobs unless we prove our ’German-ness’,” Sameer told Equal Times. “People expect us to be grateful, and trust me, I am. But they are often unaware of the challenges we face in our personal lives and on the labour market.”

Mariana concurs: “I personally think that integration cannot happen from one side, the people in Germany could be more understanding of our situation, and try to integrate us into the labour market”.

According to Nikolas Kretzschmar of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), there is no rule of thumb regarding the management of refugee experiences.

“Integration is a process which takes time. It’s a multi-generational, reciprocal process, which actively enlists all parts of society,” he told Equal Times. “How bureaucratic obstacles occur depends on each individual case.”

“Together we are strong”

In 2014, Germany passed the Higher Education Act, lifting restrictions that prohibited people with an unclear residence status (crudely translated into English as ’tolerated person status’) from accessing university.

Kretzschmar points out that “gaining the required German skills within a short period and to fit in an often different teaching and learning culture, might be one of the biggest qualitative obstacles refugee students have to face.”

The new Integration Act of 2016 envisions integration as a bilateral process. Under the motto "together we are strong", the act delineates two aspects of ‘integration support’ and ‘integration obligations’ as being intrinsically interlinked.

According to the website of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, ‘integration support’ encompasses refugee integration measures including more support for vocational training.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel is under increasing pressure to renounce her relatively pro-refugee stance, especially in the wake of the 19 December attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in which 12 people were killed.

Merkel has promised to send back many of the refugees admitted into Germany last year, further claiming that those who stay will not be permitted to develop a "parallel society".

Kretzschmar, Sameer and Mariana agree that the challenge of integration is colossal, encompassing a process that will bring profound and fundamental changes to both refugees and host communities. Some of the most invaluable advice Mariana received during her settlement process came from refugees who had undergone similar experiences. She believes younger, settled refugees can use their position to make a positive impact on the lives of less fortunate refugees who face similar struggles, and lack access to better opportunities.

“I think the younger, educated refugees can play a great role in building bridges between cultures,” Mariana said. “I think we are the ones who are able to advocate for the rights of the less fortunate who lack access to crucial information, and require support, both material and emotional.”