Union support for refugee teachers in Saxony, by Brhan Al Zoabi

Among the many people who have fled to Germany since 2015 are many skilled workers who have not only lost their families, friends, history, work, future, property, home and dreams, but also their direction, path and goal. In other words, they have lost everything. Some workers have found other areas of work, which is not easy, in particular, for teachers. What other work can a teacher do who has worked in teaching in his or her home country for more than 20 years? In this article, I want to present the prospects and ideas of a team of refugee teachers, whose network is spread through Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz; a network built with the support of GEW Saxony.

The first step is always the hardest: German!

I found myself at rock bottom about three years ago when I still couldn’t speak any German. German is one of the most difficult languages in the world. I had to make a real effort to participate in everyday life and what I learnt at the language school up to level B1 was not enough for that. It only sufficed for simple, uncomplicated communication, for example, at the supermarket or with very patient neighbours. One can hardly make friends, take part in job interviews or communicate with other people in an understandable way.

The language school plays the biggest part in the language training of the participants. What struck me, however, is the great interest shown by the school in the fees it charges to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and the considerable neglect of the learning process. The teaching staff were not professional teachers, but were only able to teach materials for a low level. In addition, the classes were very lax, with the result that most of those attending did not take the teaching content very seriously. Furthermore, only four of six textbooks had been taught by the end of the course. These correspond to level A2, and not to B1 or even the “integration course”.

Off to the labour market!

The linguistic skills learnt at the language school are not sufficient to apply for a position that might have been offered by the job centre or through advertisements.

The job application letter is a major challenge. At the first interview, you encounter the bitter reality that you need much, too much, to gain proper entry to the labour market. We are talking here about a teacher with many years of experience in the teaching profession who is now applying for a position as something else. Language is not the only obstacle, there’s also the matter of appropriate qualifications.

To be able to work as a salesperson in my home country, you don’t have to do an apprenticeship, you just need to be persuasive, loyal, nice, self-confident and smart. In Germany it’s different, because you need a commercial qualification that requires three years.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to obtain recognition for qualifications in the teaching profession. What does it mean for a teacher who was trained over a period of several years in Syria and then gathered a lot of experience in teaching and now have to perform a completely different job and also have to re-learn all this beforehand?

Finding the right way

There have been a very large number of measures and events intended to advise refugee academics what ways exist for them to find a new career and training or further training programmes or studies. This has been very helpful to a lot of people. However, there are considerably fewer options for those who are already older and do not get any financial support, for example. under the BAföG (Federal Training Support Law). Refugee teachers already have had many years of experience and have undergone a lot of training courses. In addition, they often have responsibilities for families with children.

I got to know the Chairperson of the Trade Union for Education and Science (GEW), Ms. Uschi Kruse, by chance during an event at the University of Leipzig. I was very happy to find my way here in Germany. She was happy as well to receive assistance from me in working with refugee teachers.  As there do not appear to be any law that clearly states that refugee teachers can practice their profession in German, our objective is to build a network and develop a concept with regard to how and under what conditions refugee teachers can play a positive role in countering the nationwide teacher shortage.

This has taken a great deal of work, effort and energy to identify and connect with teachers scattered in different neighbourhoods. Since then, we have been learning about the education system in this network; a big step in the right direction. We are also networking and contacting politicians and media with the support of GEW Saxony to present our concerns. The GEW is an organisation that we, as teachers, feel affiliated with, especially because of the open collegial attitude we have found there.

Obstacles and problems

In Leipzig alone, there are already around 80 refugee teachers (with the number rising constantly) with different Syrian qualifications and degrees.

Although it is not easy for a foreign teacher to meet the requirements for gaining access to the German school system, the members of the network are nevertheless endeavouring to make this possible. The main focus of our efforts is on recognition of the qualification acquired abroad. It is not just a matter of the high fees connected to being able to take additional courses, between EUR 200 and 500, but also the further theoretical studies, which take several additional years and involve the repetition of a lot of information that has already been learnt. Furthermore, studying a second subject also comes into play as required for the teaching profession in Saxony.

There are only two instances of a qualification programme for refugee teachers at university; the Universities of Potsdam and Bielefeld with their Refugee Teachers Programme. These include around 55 mentors and teachers. The programme lasts 1½ years. German is taught in the first semester, with the second semester including courses/lectures, laws, teaching methods and placement in a school and the last six months spent on intensive training to acquire the C1 (GER) language level qualification.

Acceptance of refugee teachers by the parents, students and German teaching colleagues, who have been heavily exposed to the hate of the right-wing populist media, has improved largely through the support of the GEW in Saxony as well as in other federal states. This is also fosters self-assertion of refugee teachers. Refugee teachers can help improve the blurred and distorted image of refugees.

In fact, rather than just teach their subjects in German schools, refugee teachers could also play an additional, helpful role in teaching and integrating refugee children. We are familiar with the culture and education system of our country, from which many refugee children and their parents come. We speak their native language and share the experience and, often, trauma, of fleeing our country with them. Our academic background and teaching experience in our country of origin put us in a good position to convey the standards, values and rules of the German school system to newly arrived children and adolescents.

As a result, there is a far greater chance of reducing misunderstandings between children and between the refugee children and their teachers. We can also make a particularly important contribution in German as a Second Language for refugees. The new skills, tips, solutions to puzzles and logic of the German language learnt by the refugee teacher make it easier for that teacher to teach the foreign language to children from abroad.

A simple equation has a simple solution

It is already a widely known fact that there is a great shortage of teachers in the schools of Saxony, as well as in the country as a whole.

The mathematical equation is:

The great shortage of teachers + The qualified refugee teachers = The solution

Or at least part of it.

Time passes very quickly, and children are unfortunately suffering from the great shortage of teachers while refugee teachers suffer from a lack of information and orientation, which causes a great deal of time to be lost. Due to the long waiting periods, the refugee teachers lose the German they have learnt as well as the competence, energy and will to exercise this important profession as a teacher. Some have started looking for other work, while others are trying to move to other federal states where they might find other work.

There is now a dilemma with many citizens talking about refugees having a major obligation to find a job. However, many refugees speak in this regard about work being a fundamental right for them that they want to realise. They want to work and are enthusiastic. They see work as a right rather than an obligation. Politicians should rethink available options and become active without delay to eliminate this dilemma and find solutions that will take advantage of the skills and the good will of refugee teachers.


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Bran Al Zoabi

Bran Al Zoabi is in charge of the Refugee Teachers' programme at GEW Sachsen State Branch, in Germany.

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