How do refugee students make the jump to Germany's universities?

Many of the asylum seekers in Germany are university students looking to continue their studies. Various organizations are trying to help them navigate the country's particular challenges, including a big one: German.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhannad, a migrant, works on his computer in March in Berlin.

Mohamad Taqi Sohrabi has had to fight for an education his entire life.

An Afghan refugee born in Iran, Mr. Sohrabi says it wasn’t easy for him to go to school. By age 10 or 11, he was working during the day and studying at night. Sohrabi was eventually able to study English translation at a university outside Tehran for four semesters, but as an Afghan in Iran, even that was difficult.

In 2015, he made the dangerous journey from Iran to Germany. Now he wants to enroll in a university and finish his education. But the authorities have not yet rendered a final decision on his asylum application, so he’s not certain if he will even be allowed to stay in Germany. And he’ll need to learn German before he can apply.

Sohrabi is one of the more than 1.2 million asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany in the last two years. Many of them are young people who want to pursue higher education. Like Sohrabi, they face many barriers, including mastering German, providing documents that prove previous academic records or qualifications, and dealing with the sometimes exhausting German bureaucracy.

But across Germany, initiatives have sprung up to help would-be students overcome the challenges, sometimes in innovative ways. Many universities have started programs to help refugees meet enrollment requirements. A startup called Kiron allows newcomers to take online courses in English before helping them transition to traditional universities. And Bard College Berlin is offering scholarships to refugees for a four-year liberal arts degree at the institution. Those formal programs are supplemented by citizens and activist networks working to connect prospective students with opportunities and raise money for scholarships.

Sohrabi is now progressing toward proficiency in German through intensive language courses at the Academic Welcome Program at Geothe University in Frankfurt. “It’s very helpful,” he says. “For both sides, it’s good – for Germany, and for the refugees.”

Ramping up refugees

Many of the efforts to boost access to higher education were born in 2015, as the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany suddenly swelled. Many universities quickly recognized that there would be a need to facilitate access for refugees, and began programs like the one at Goethe, which had 135 students in the spring term.

The Goethe program students take intensive German courses, can attend some university classes, and are given support in everything from CV writing to navigating the financial aid system. Most spend two to three semesters in the program reaching the level of language proficiency required to study in German universities. The program helps prepare students for whatever they choose to do after, whether that’s studying or applying for jobs or internships. But the goal, says project coordinator Marius Jakl, is that they end up as students at Goethe.

Such programs are common now across Germany. A similar one at the Free University in Berlin currently had 200 participants in the spring, and has already enrolled 20 former participants in the university. Both programs provide childcare in an effort to boost enrollment by women. Demand far outstrips supply – Jakl says last semester Goethe fielded about 250 applications for 45 spots, and Florian Kohstall, director of the program, says it perpetually has a waiting list of about 100 people.

Such programs aim to solve one of the biggest hurdles for potential students: learning German. But Bard College Berlin allows them to bypass that challenge altogether by offering them scholarships to study in English, the university’s language of instruction. Refugees need not master German before applying, though they will be required to learn it while studying there.

Students and staff at the small private liberal arts school in the capital watched as hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Europe in 2015 and realized the college was uniquely placed to help – both because of its location at the heart of the nation accepting the majority of asylum seekers, and because of its language of instruction. English is more commonly spoken by new arrivals, particularly those pursuing higher education, than German.

School officials raised private donations to fund a scholarship program for students from areas of crisis. The first five scholarships, awarded for study beginning last fall, went to four Syrian students and one Greek student. Thirteen more scholarships were awarded for study beginning this year, ten of them to Syrian students. [Editor's note: The original version misstated how many scholarships were awarded this year.]

The language hurdle

Florian Becker, Bard’s managing director, says the institution would like to further expand the program, though that is dependent on funding.

“Of course we’re entirely aware of the problem of scale here ... that [the Bard scholarships] can always be dismissed in a drop in the bucket,” he says. “But when you are a teacher such as we are, and you see what it does to those students, and what it means to their life situation, and to their perspective, then I get impatient with that charge. Because of course we’re small and we cannot change the world, but ... we have been trying to sort of punch above our weight and we’re still hoping to do that.”

One of the Bard scholarship recipients is Ahmad Mobayed, a Syrian who came to Bard by way of another initiative meant to reduce barriers to higher education for refugees: Kiron Open Higher Education. Kiron is a startup that allows refugees to enroll in online classes in English before helping them apply to traditional universities. Students gain credits from the online courses which they can later transfer to universities, allowing them to make progress toward their education in the time they spend learning German or waiting on bureaucracy. The organization declined an interview request, but according to the website, Kiron has at least 34 partner universities in Germany. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Mobayed's first name.]

Mr. Mobayed arrived in Germany in 2015, eager to continue his education after exhausting his options elsewhere, and soon began courses with Kiron. “I think for my case, for the cases of many Syrians and people who arrived to Germany in the last three to four years, it was a solution or alternative for people who are motivated to study,” he says.

Last year Mobayed won one of the Bard College scholarships, and transferred 30 credits from his Kiron courses toward his degree at Bard.

Studying on a tightrope

Despite all these efforts, there are still challenges. Bureaucracy is one of them, says Dr. Kohstall of Free University.

At the beginning of the program, students would often miss days because they had to deal with appointments or paperwork related to their asylum status, he says. And while asylum holders are obliged to attend “integration courses,” which include language courses, to qualify for assistance, programs like the one at Free University aren’t recognized by the government as such.

Maryam Sayegh-Hussein, of the Goethe program, says many participants also struggle with stress and worry – about their housing, asylum status, and relatives in their home countries who are still in danger.

Such is the case for Sohrabi. While asylum applications from Syrians and other nationalities whose claims are often approved are processed relatively quickly, Afghans often wait months or years for answers, and are rejected in much higher numbers. Sohrabi waited a year just for his asylum interview, he says, and was recently informed that his application was rejected. He is now appealing that decision, which could take several years. He now lives in a camp for asylum seekers far from campus, where he shares a room with three others.

But the main problem is the uncertainty about his future. “For studying, it’s very difficult when all the time it’s in your mind that you’re waiting for something,” he says.

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