Migrant Lives

Glimpse Of A Gifted Refugee’s Life In A German High School

Refugees attend lessons at a vocational school center in Biberach an der Riss, Germany
Refugees attend lessons at a vocational school center in Biberach an der Riss, Germany
Johann Osel

INGOLSTADT â€" Math is the first class of the day. Only two students, who are clearly aces at math, are raising their hands to answer the teacher’s questions. Almost everyone else is dozing off. But Mahmoud, who is seated in the first row, appears to be wide awake. He does not, however, raise his hand. It’s not that the math being taught is too difficult for him. It's just that the 17-year-old is shy. He's also struggling with the German language and Bavarian accent of the teacher.

Mahmoud’s mere presence here in a German school is an experiment. He does not stick out with his cool horn-rimmed glasses and trendy haircut â€" the sides cropped short, the top long. And yet, he is different from all the others. Mahmoud is an unaccompanied minor refugee from the Kurdish region of Syria. He is one of about 70,000 refugees under the age of 18 who fled to Germany without a parent in 2015. And this country is supposed to provide him with an education.

The education level of incoming refugees is often a topic of hot debate. Officials, like the general population in Germany, are torn between a culture of hospitality and skepticism toward refugees. Some claim that refugees are generally illiterate, only shepherds, people who cannot be taught. Others talk about refugees like they are all heart surgeons and their offspring are extraordinarily intelligent. Neither portrayal is accurate.

Integration doesn’t work by itself. It never has. You only have to look at how much the third generation of some migrant groups are lagging behind to understand this. There is no easy way "through" our educational system even for skilled refugees like Mahmoud.

Mahmoud was a good student in Syria. His parents believed in the importance of education. Mahmoud’s father died when Mahmoud was young but the family was financially stable because they owned a patch of land and received income from renting out the property.

German authorities try to take special care of unaccompanied minors. They are not placed in typical refugee homes. Mahmoud stays at a facility run by the Roland Berger Foundation in Ingolstadt, a southern German city that's also home to the Audi car company. The facility has social workers, lecturers and mentors who tailor strategies for each refugee to ensure their wellbeing and to help them prepare for the future.

Like most refugees of school age, Mahmoud went to a preparation class when he first arrived in Germany. That was when his main caregiver noticed how gifted Mahmoud was, particularly in math and physics. “That’s when I thought Mahmoud should be at school,” says the social worker.

“(Math) formulae are the same in every country,” says Mahmoud simply.

So while he tackles equations and sonnets, others in the same house take part in classes that are supposed to prepare them for the working world. The official report on Mahmoud’s abilities, which was compiled after his arrival in Germany, reads like a school report: “Mahmoud went to school continuously since the age of six and is able to read and write in his native Arabic tongue. He was familiar with the Latin alphabet when he arrived in Germany. His English is very good and he has very good general knowledge and a quick mind.”

Knock at the door

Mahmoud’s room demonstrates the clash of cultures he experiences. You will find a photo of German footballer Mario Götze and a Syrian flag right above his bed.

Mahmoud’s hometown is situated in the northeast corner of Syria which meets Turkey and Iraq. It is at the heart of the conflict as it's prized by Kurdish people, rebels and Syrian troops. It’s also eyed by ISIS militants, who managed to get as close as 20 kilometers to his city's border.

“Everyone is fighting everyone else,” says Mahmoud. The peaceful city of his childhood suddenly became a different place, where grenades were tossed up to the family’s balcony and the military knocked on their front door to force Mahmoud to join the fight. “I was a student. Being a student was my job, not killing people. I could never do that,” he says.

His mother urged him and his brother to flee â€" “If you stay here, you’ll die,” she told them. The brothers traveled for six months. First through Turkey, then by boat to Greece after turning to smugglers for help. Mahmoud does not like to speak of those six months and grows more quiet than usual. The official report only says that the police found him near Munich in 2015. He was registered as an illegally traveling unaccompanied minor so the child services agency had to care for him.

Street scene Ingolstadt â€" Photo: Allie Caulfield

But what now? Study? Work? It is not the trauma caused by his escape that weighs Mahmoud down but constant worry for the wellbeing of his mother and sister. And his guilty conscience. The law allowing families to join unaccompanied minors who had arrived in Germany was torn down when the mood toward refugees turned sour.

Mahmoud knows how lucky he is to be here. But he also knows that his family could be dead tomorrow. Reading news everyday online about Syria does not help. There are days when he uses his full German vocabulary and smiles. And then there are days when he feels gloomy and is curt, looking lost on the gigantic couch in the recreation room as he tries to make himself smaller than he is. Everyone notices his glum moods â€" social workers, fellow students at school, teachers as well as his headmaster, Vitus Lehenmeier.

Lehenmeier made Mahmoud a “management priority” and gives him private tutoring in his office after school. “I am allowed to talk about anything I don’t understand,” says Mahmoud about his private lessons. But Lehenmeier makes it clear that Mahmoud is not receiving special treatment.

“We don’t want to give the impression that any one person is being favored above others. It also isn’t clear that Mahmoud will be able to get his high school diploma. We are giving him a chance but it is entirely up to him to make the best of it. He has to work within the system and we, as a school, want him to do well within the system,” says Lehenmeier.

Mahmoud will have to take an exam during the summer holidays to demonstrate what he has learned throughout the year. If he passes the exam, he will be allowed to continue on to grade 11. If he fails, he will repeat grade 10 for another year under exactly the same circumstances as other students.

Mahmoud is confident that everything will go well and that he will continue to advance from one grade to the next until he gets his high school diploma and is off to university. Lehenmeier is more cautious and speaks of “great leaps forward if you compare the first and second semester.”

Lehenmeier believes that the exam Mahmoud faces should be up to standard: “It will not do him any favor if he is simply allowed to continue on to the next grade, no matter what.” Either way, the road ahead is as long as it is unpredictable â€" both for Mahmoud and for Germany.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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