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In Germany, Schools Can't Handle Refugee Children

Germany's state of Bavaria is overwhelmed by the number of Somali refugees, creating a crisis at schools ill-equipped to deal with not only language barriers, but serious childhood trauma.

"Teachers are not prepared for this crisis ..."
"Teachers are not prepared for this crisis ..."
Tina Baier

MUNICH — Dominik Bauer, a teacher in a high school transition class for new students who don't speak German, says more and more kids arrive with dramatic true stories to tell.

The teacher in the southern state of Bavaria recalls in vivid details a letter written by one 17-year-old who had fled Somalia with his uncle, after his father had been killed. Bauer said the student wrote about being stuck for months in a Libyan prison, and how he finally got onto an overcrowded boat to cross the Mediterranean, only to wind up drifting for days in the open sea. Eventually some of his fellow passengers started to drink salt water — and one after the other, died in front of him.

Klaus Wenzel, president of the Bavarian Teacher's Association used a recent press conference to sound the alarm about the increasing numbers of troubled refugee students arriving in the German state.

"Refugee children are coming to Bavaria, severely traumatized, suffering from depression and even suicidal," said Wenzel, adding that schools are ill-equipped for the situation. "We're lacking everything. The kids are standing at the door with fear on their faces and sad eyes."

To improve the situation, the teacher's association is asking the Bavarian state government to fund an emergency program that will cost 10 million euros. Schools that accept refugee children need a whole team of specialists in order to help them.

"Teachers are not prepared for this crisis," Wenzel said. "Most of them want to help, but are quickly overwhelmed by the unspeakable pain they encounter and the lack of support." There are also way too few social workers and school psychologists.

"If we suspect that a child is traumatized, it presently takes three to four months before that child can get an appointment with a school psychologist," says Henrik Schödel, head of a school in Hof, Germany.

In his experience, having interpreters at the disposal of schools is an enormous help. He recalls how several children recently came to see him with their parents. The only German words one of the mothers could speak were "Kind" and "Schule" (child, school). Schödel was able to communicate with her only because he knew another mother he could call on to provide translation.

Another problem is that the transition classes in Bavaria are hopelessly overcrowded. As a result, children who can't speak German are transferred to normal classes where they pass the time without learning anything because they can't understand what the teacher is saying.

The Ministry of Culture increased the number of transition classes this school year from 235 to 300, but it's apparently not enough. Henrik Schödel, for example, would gladly start a second transition class in his school. "In July, we had 19 children in the class," he says. "At the beginning of the school, there were seven more, and the day before yesterday two more showed up." Schödel has already applied for permission to launch a second class, but he doesn't know it if will be approved. The relevant school authority currently has no teachers to teach such a class.

In Klaus Wenzel's opinion, no transition class should have more than 16 children in it. The ideal situation would be for two teachers to teach it at least part of the time, as the requirements of the children in these classes vary widely. The only thing they have in common is that they can't speak German.

"We have children who've never been to school before sitting next to kids who are reading Tolstoy in Russian," Bauer says.

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