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01 December 2023

Lesson in endurance: Syrian refugee teacher enters German school


Working at a German school is not just about reading and writing, maths and singing songs, says newly minted Syrian assistant teacher Hend al-Khabbaz.

She was surprised to discover there is also a mountain of paperwork and administrative tasks to perform.

The school "is better for the children, but it's a lot of work for the teachers," the 35-year-old says with a laugh, speaking in German which she has learnt since fleeing her war-torn homeland less than three years ago.

Khabbaz's new workplace is the Sigmund Jaehn primary school in Fuerstenwalde, a town of drab pre-fabricated housing blocks in Germany's formerly communist east, 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Berlin.

That's around 3,500 kilometres from the home she left in Homs, Syria, where she taught English before boarding an overcrowded boat for her escape to Europe.

After a gruelling trek along the Balkans route, she requested asylum in Germany in September 2015, at the peak of a mass influx that has since brought more than a million refugees and migrants.

While Germany has struggled to integrate many of the newcomers, Khabbaz got a lucky break and through her hard work now has a full-time job in her profession.

She is one of the first graduates of Potsdam University's pioneering Refugee Teachers Programme, which readies foreign teachers to enter the German school system.

Of the initial 700 applicants in 2016, 85 percent were Syrians.

"These are people who have had a good university education," says Miriam Vock, the professor who initiated the programme.

"We want to give them the chance to be able to work again here."

- Memories of war -

In the corridors of the Fuerstenwalde school, a bell cuts through the hubbub of recess and signals the return to class.

Among the children flocking to their desks in a classroom with paper butterflies on the green walls are four Syrian children -- Yasmine, Zaid and two boys named Mohamed.

Their colourful pencil cases in front of them, the pupils, aged nine to 11, listen intently to the lesson.

"What is this man doing?" asks a teaching assistant at a cinema workshop as the class watches a video.

Mohamed, wearing sweatpants, raises his hand and says eagerly in his newly-acquired language: "He is opening the door."

Standing beside the Syrian pupils is Khabbaz, ready to help out in those moments when the four youngsters need some extra help.

Yasmine, with long brown braids that fall down her back, turns to the young woman and whispers a question in Arabic.

"There are words they don't understand yet, or sometimes the teacher speaks too quickly," says Khabbaz.

School principal Ines Tesch explains that the refugee children "still struggle with the specialised language of biology or physics".

"When there's no other way, the children speak their mother tongue," says Tesch.

It means precious support for the children who, aside from having to find their way in an unknown country, carry the memories of war, upheaval and exodus.

- 'Building bridges' -

The Sigmund Jaehn School, named after the first East German cosmonaut in space, is currently hosting 92 refugee children, including 45 Syrians, among its total of 350 pupils.

Tesch says that Khabbaz "has allowed us to build bridges" with foreign-born parents who are often overwhelmed by the demands of a German bureaucracy ever hungry for official stamps and documents.

Khabbaz says the biggest obstacle to resuming her profession was learning the new language, which made up the bulk of the Potsdam training course.

"It's very demanding because the participants have to acquire the level of German that is essential for teaching," says programme founder Vock.

It is the main reason that out of the first batch of 26 graduates in 2017, only 12 have so far joined a school. The others will have to sit their German exams again.

Still, the programme has been hailed a success, and other German universities are now following suit, at a time when some rural regions suffer a critical lack of teachers.

"It is clear that in the end they will all find a job in a school," says Vock.

However, the hurdles are higher for those who want to obtain the privileged status of civil servant, because "most of them are only licensed to teach one subject," Vock adds.

"In Germany you need a master's degree and two teaching subjects."

For now, Khabbaz is happy to be building a new life in the town where the Sputnik bakery and Yuri Gagarin Street, named after a Russian cosmonaut, recall the Cold War past.

Although the region has seen an upsurge in anti-foreigner sentiment since the mass migrant influx, Khabbaz says she has been spared open discrimination and racism.

"No-one has ever dared to say a thing about Ms al-Khabbaz," says Tesch, the energetic school principal.

"But I know I would probably have problems with some parents if she wore a Muslim face veil."