Tips on integrating refugee children in Germany

More than 80,000 refugees have arrived in Berlin since 2015 . Against this backdrop, the Berlin education authortity has developed Welcome Classes – special classes designed to enable refugee children to transition into the German school system. There are currently about 670 Welcome Classes in the German capital alone, teaching about 7,380 children. 

Joana Casimiro is a teacher at Anna-Lindh-Schule, a school that has run Welcome Classes since 2009. She is supported in her work creating a safe environment for the 12 children in her ‘Willkommensklasse’ by volunteers including retired teachers, trainee teachers, a scientist and Arabic translators.  Joana spoke to Lydia Ciesluk of British Council Germany about her experience and shared her top 6 tips:

1. Give the children time 

Teachers of refugee children are under a lot of pressure to bring their pupils up to a specific language level.  However, my first priority is to create a space where they feel safe and calm. 

The Syrian refugee children are particularly traumatised. Some just cry for days and struggle to focus in class. 

2. Do your research to understand their situation

As a teacher I try to understand where each child is coming from. Some live in noisy accommodation where they can’t sleep for more than three hours a night. 

If you have been to a refugee shelter you will be better placed to understand their behaviour. 

I have also had coaching with a child psychiatrist and learned never to start a conversation about their experiences. 

However, you can’t always avoid upsetting topics in the classroom. Once, the children in my class found four-leaf clovers and were asked to make a wish. From the Syrian students I heard things like ‘I wish my cousin had not died’ or ‘I wish we could have brought our grandma to Germany’. This is hard to deal with. 

3. Engage with the refugee parents and build mutual respect

I believe that there needs to be more effort put into including parents and families into the school community and society. 

As a Brazilian mother in Germany I understand how confusing a new cultural environment can be. How am I supposed to know that my child needs to bring ‘Hausschuhe’ to school with them – a special pair of shoes to be used indoors?  

I know that your confidence and language skills go downhill when you are stressed because you are dealing with complex immigration processes and local authorities. 

To empower parents of young children we offer German classes in our school where there are also babysitters present, and get-togethers in the cafeteria. These create opportunities to socialise and share experiences. 

We also work on building mutual respect and celebrating each other's cultures. Why not give refugee parents an opportunity to showcase their extraordinary skills? Some of the fathers from Syria who happen to be tailors were able to craft a jungle backdrop for a school project. I think everyone agreed that their work was the most beautiful thing ever shown in our school.

4. Take your students to the opera

I’m a literature professional and also have studied music. From my teaching experience I know that music and language calm children down. This is one of the reasons for my monthly excursions to the opera with my Welcome Class students. 

Cultural activities can also be easily combined with the teaching of life skills, such as how to use public transportation or what is considered appropriate behaviour in different environments. Also, more than half of my students live in repurposed sports halls without local neighbours. I find it important to take them out and make them visible. 

5. Become a fundraiser (and don’t be afraid to fundraise)

Teachers of Welcome Classes often pay for teaching materials or excursions out of their own pockets. 

When looking for ways to fund our excursions to the opera I was positively surprised by the willingness of local people and organisations to help; many already want to and just don’t know how, and are grateful if you approach them with project ideas. 

I believe that the NGO and volunteer sector in Berlin is a key factor for the successful integration of refugees. The commitment of helpers is overwhelming. 

I can only recommend that teachers reach out and ask for support. Think creatively and resourcefully and be proactive. 

6. Go left when nothing goes right

Our principal trusts me and supports my work a lot, which is why we have an exceptional project here. The way we run our Welcome Classes might not be perfect, but it is working. 

When working towards the integration of refugee children you need to be flexible and confident in your teaching abilities. For example, I found out that it’s easier for Arab children to learn German words with a focus on syllables. I also design my curriculum around themes such as ‘Circus’ and link it to every subject to recycle vocabulary. 

Working with parents from diverse backgrounds requires a lot of flexibility too. We had zero attendance from Arab parents at our regular 6pm meetings. Moving them to 1pm and providing babysitters raised the attendance level to 100 per cent. 

In the beginning there were heated debates during parents’ meetings; for example, when fathers refused to sit next to a woman. As a teacher you need intercultural skills to deal with this. We are now working with up to five different language translators to include everyone in discussions.

My message to everyone is: I came to Germany from another country too and see myself as a role model for these young girls growing up here. I made it, and these children can make it too.

The background, and more about the British Council's work around inclusion 

Joana Casimiro and the Anna-Lindh-Schule hosted a delegation of school teachers from Northern Ireland taking part in a British Council study visit to Berlin and Brandenburg to learn about inclusion in schools. This group is now on the second phase of their trip, visting schools in Hong Kong and you can follow their experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #ISV2017. 

Inclusion is one of the priority areas for the British Council in Germany. As a follow-up to this visit and building on our cooperation with state teacher training institutes, education ministries and institutions, we are looking for partners in other German federal states interested in working together on this theme. Find out how to partner with us to make schools more inclusive