At Johanna-Eck School in Berlin, the mission to educate and integrate migrants is taken seriously.
The student body is a jumble of nationalities and ethnicities highlighting Germany’s evolving identity. Schoolyard conversations are held in more than a half-dozen languages, and greetings from all of them are painted on the school building’s steps.
“They should feel welcome in our schools, so we take time to talk to the students and their parents or guardians,” says Silke Donath, a teacher and vice principal. She says students are sometimes brought in to translate if the families speak a language the school staff doesn’t understand.
The moment children are admitted to Joanna-Eck, assimilation begins, Donath says. A quarter of her students, most of them asylum seekers, are divided based on ability among “welcome” classes offering extra language and academic tutoring and other help they might need to adjust.
The welcome classes are blended with regular ones so that newcomers more quickly learn German and make friends, she says.
Donath adds that German police are not allowed to come in and talk to students here, even when they or their families face deportation.
“We say they should feel free and safe,” she explains. “This is important, otherwise it’s difficult to learn.”
About 20 of the students have a lively exchange with a German teacher on a recent school day about etiquette in written German communication, including how to address letters and envelopes. It’s a vital skill in a country that stresses formality in written exchanges.
Two of the students are ninth-graders Jamil Mohamad Amin and Zara Hussein, both 16-year-old Syrian Kurds.
Jamil, who is from Aleppo, says he still speaks Kurdish at home with his parents, but is clearly fluent in his new language as well.
“For about five months I’ve been writing and recording songs and posting them to YouTube,” he says in German. “At first I only wrote them in Kurdish, but then tried writing them in German. The German texts weren’t as good as I would have liked at the beginning, but they are improving over time.”
One of his favorites is a song he wrote and performed in German about loving one’s mother and the loss of family during war. The song also includes Persian lyrics sung by a friend.
Jamil is also integrating in other ways. He says he’s not a big fan of German food but does watch German-language videos. His favorite is an online series called “Auf Streife” or “On Patrol” which is about German police patrols. The teen, whose father was a lawyer in Syria, says he is thinking about a career as a lawyer as well.
Jamil says he feels a lot more German now than when he first arrived two years ago and lived with his parents and three brothers in a small town in the eastern German state of Saxony.
He says people there acted as if his family had come for welfare benefits instead of to escape a war and adds that the Saxon school didn’t even try to assimilate newcomers.
“It was really hard to learn German because all day long we were in normal classes with German students who ignored me” and other refugee students, Jamil recalled. “I understood nothing and felt very alone. Eventually I made a few friends and started to pick up some German.”
Jamil says his father decided to move the family to Berlin in order to feel less isolated. The teen says things are much better at the Johanna-Eck School.
But Jamil’s classmate, Zara, says he struggled at first because he had no family or friends to help him adjust.
The teen, who after a year at the school speaks German like a native, says he came to Germany from the northeastern Syrian town of Al-Qamishli when he was just shy of 15.
“I fled after I was drafted by the YPG army (Kurdish forces),” he recalled, referring to the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s army. “I hadn’t seen my parents for three months and we kept being attacked by other groups, so one day I just ran away.”
He says he decided to come to Germany because he heard from other migrants that it was kind to refugees.
The Berlin city government has put him up in a nearby apartment with an Afghan and Arab teen who also are unaccompanied minors. His roommates, who’ve been here less than six months, are still waiting for documents that will allow them to go to school, Zara says.
The three of them take a field trip to a museum or German movie once or twice a month to learn more about German culture.
But Zara says he misses his family terribly and that as soon as his asylum is formally approved in the coming months, he will apply to bring his parents to Germany.