Starting afresh in a new country is hard enough for refugees and migrants. For children, who by law have to attend school, it can be even harder; settling into a new school system as soon as they can after learning enough of the host country’s language. That’s why in Dresden, for the last ten years, the association "Ausländerrat Dresden e.V." has been offering an educational mentorship program, matching children with educational ‘godparents’ who can help guide them through their studies in Germany.
“I am a born teacher,” smiles Evelyn Harz, who clearly loves her job. She has been teaching Russian and Spanish for the last 30 years in a language high school in Dresden. Outside of her day job, she is also a mother to three children, has grandchildren and finds time to volunteer as an educational mentor to Kamila, a 15-year-old teenage girl from Afghanistan. Evelyn Harz is just one of a pool of about 120 who volunteer with the Ausländerrat Dresden e.V (a charity association which gives advice to foreigners in Dresden) as educational ‘godparents.’
Evelyn and Kamila have been working together for almost four years now. “It is a very close relationship,” explains Evelyn. She decided to volunteer to be a ‘godparent’ in 2016 after seeing all the new arrivals in Germany. Her own experiences also played a big part in her decision. Evelyn grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), former East Germany. Before the wall came down she went to Russia to study and lived there for five years. There she met her first husband, who is from Cuba and she moved to live with him there for five years too. “So I have always been very open towards foreigners,” smiles Evelyn whose own children are mixed race.
Her experiences as a foreigner abroad also helped her empathy for the plight of refugees and migrants in Germany. "When I was in Cuba, I would hold on to some of my German traditions, for instance hanging curtains at the windows,” Evelyn remembers; people used to laugh at me for that but I didn’t care.
‘It’s a two-way relationship’
“Being an [educational] godmother is a bit like being a teacher,” smiles Evelyn when asked why she decided to volunteer for the scheme. “It is a two-way relationship, and you could say that you get back the love you put in. When I go there, the mother will hug me and kiss me five times because she wants to show how grateful she is and that is such a lovely feeling.”
Anna Geiser, the project coordinator for the educational mentorship program at the Foreigners’ Association confirms that building a two-way exchange is what it is all about. “So many mentors talk about what a lovely relationship develops with the whole family,” Geiser enthuses. “We really try and get people to enter into cultural exchange with each other.” Geiser finds that many mentors join up precisely because of that.Evelyn is one of those. She describes how the family will invite her to eat with them whenever she goes over to help Kamila. In return, Evelyn has baked cookies with the family at Christmas and Easter time and takes Kamila and some of the other children on days out with her own grandchildren to see sights around Dresden, like the zoo and local parks.
As well as helping provide a guide to Germany, German and the German school system, Geiser thinks “the mentors are also curious about how things work in someone’s home culture.” She finds that often a lot of clichés are broken down on both sides as a result.
Who can take part?
The project allows any child to take part in the program, regardless of whether they have received refugee status or not, and regardless of their background or their country of origin. Children between 6 and 18 can apply. Most mentorships will last around two years until marks improve and the child feels more able to manage on their own. Some mentorships, however, can run on longer, if both mentor and mentee see it as beneficial to continue.
Even after a mentorship has finished, mentors often remain in contact with the families. Evelyn hopes that will be the case for herself and Kamila. She can imagine taking on Kamila’s younger brothers and sisters, who already listen intently when she is there to help Kamila. “I think we like each other,” says Evelyn, “I can’t imagine that we will just stop.” Evelyn sees their friendship evolving even when Kamila has her own family.
Geiser confirms that often the educational mentor becomes a very important person in a child’s life. They are not there to take decisions away from the parents, cautions Geiser but often the parents don’t have much time or space or knowledge to know how to help the children with these educational questions. They might be very busy just getting enough money to pay the rent and deal with all the bureaucracy that they face in Germany. The mentor then becomes that person, a trusted friend almost, with whom the child can talk about all their worries to do with school and their future.
The program “is very close to my heart,” says Geiser, who herself moved to Dresden 15 years ago from Russia. She too knows what it is like to have to learn a new language and start from scratch. She had trained in psychology in Russia but in Dresden she re-trained as a social worker at the University of Applied Sciences for Social work, Education and Care (EHS Dresden). She started work with the Foreigners’ Association soon after.
Geiser and the team have built up a strong network over the years. She is always on the lookout for cultural opportunities that the mentors can sign up to and take along their mentees. Cheap theater visits, museums and art galleries and once a year we offer a big group outing to somewhere nearby on a coach. This really helps bring people together and discover things in the local area which they might otherwise never have access to, thinks Geiser.
How does the relationship work?
Most mentors just work with one child at a time. “Building that one on one relationship is incredibly important to us,” explains Geiser. It helps to build a relationship of trust in which the children can feel confident when practicing German, for example.
“Often in schools the child can start to fall behind in group lessons because they might not have the technical vocabulary for a particular subject. So being able to have their mentors’ attention devoted entirely to them for a few hours a week is very important.”
When children are younger, says Geiser, mentors will travel to the family home. The beginning of the relationship will always be built at home with the parents present too. But when the children get a bit older, many teenagers want to meet in a neutral place in town, where they can benefit from the mentors’ help away from the rest of the family and interact in private.
The team offers rooms in their offices for meetings when they are needed, as well as a wide range of educational books and games, to help support families, with few resources and even less money.
Evelyn knows how hard it can be from her experience with Kamila’s family. “They live in social housing,” she says and much of their furniture was donated by Evelyn’s colleagues and friends. “A lot of school work requires a computer,” says Evelyn ruefully “and the family doesn’t have access to a computer or the money to buy one.” They do, however, have mobile phones, so Evelyn has shown Kamila and her siblings how to access Wikipedia and translation apps so that they can study even when Evelyn is not there to help them.
One of the biggest challenges that Evelyn faced was the fact that Kamila and her family were all illiterate when they arrived in Germany. The Afghan family “didn’t have enough money to send the children to school in Iran, [where they had been living]” explains Evelyn. “The children were put to work sewing.” Trying to teach someone who can’t read or write in their mother tongue is an extra hurdle. “I bought a picture dictionary,” remembers Evelyn. She had taught German as a foreign language in Cuba, but there she could explain things in Spanish when her pupils couldn’t follow German. “But I can’t speak Farsi,” says Evelyn, so they had to work with pictures.
The language was the first challenge but it doesn’t get much easier. After two years of German lessons, Kamila was catapulted straight into year eight at the age of 17. “Essentially it was like finishing kindergarten and being asked to start secondary school immediately,” says Evelyn. “There are just so many gaps in her knowledge.”
Evelyn brought a globe to show Kamila what the world looks like but the knowledge she would have acquired if she had been able to progress through the whole school system is missing; so trying to learn things she is expected to know at secondary school without the basic knowledge from elementary school is almost impossible. Kamila is in the middle of repeating year nine. She hopes to become a nurse when she completes school but Evelyn thinks that might be hard. “She is very shy,” Evelyn says and trying to catch up all this knowledge in such a short space of time might prove impossible.
Prejudice can weigh hard on some participants. Evelyn has pushed very hard that Kamila’s family do not remain in a foreigners’ ghetto in Dresden. She tried to find a flat they could afford to rent away from the place where most migrant families are housed but came up against a lot of refusals from Dresdeners who were not happy to rent to an Afghan family.
The family, for now, has stayed where they were placed but Evelyn has fought for the younger children to go to a school outside the area where they have more Germans in their class. This has helped enormously with their integration, thinks Evelyn. “They have German friends now and go to German parties and their language skills have improved enormously.”
For Kamila, who arrived in Germany when she was 15, things are much more difficult. “She has one Pakistani friend in her class but almost no contact with Germans,” says Evelyn. She stays mostly among the Afghan families in her neighborhood.
The next challenge will be trying to make sure that Kamila is able to attend some kind of training course and start work rather than be married off. She wears a headscarf says Evelyn; “she sees it as a kind of protection.” Evelyn sees it as a potential barrier to entering German society.
As an experienced teacher, Evelyn thinks that migrant and refugee children should take part in mainstream German school as soon as possible; however she believes that the German school system should also rethink some of the things it requires of these children, like learning several foreign languages for instance.
“They already have a mother tongue and then they are learning German as a foreign language, why do they need to then learn English on top?” asks Evelyn, shaking her head. “Things have been really hard for Kamila,” sighs Evelyn, “because she has come up against so many failures. Children like Kamila probably do need a different school system. It is only now that things are starting to get a tiny bit better.”
Recruiting more volunteers
Anna Geiser says that people like Evelyn are the best advert for the educational mentorships; when they speak warmly about their experiences then that encourages other people to sign up too. And they are always looking for more people to sign up. Evelyn is happy to continue as a volunteer but thinks that perhaps the program should offer to pay people for their time, then perhaps more pensioners (who have time available but whom are looking to add to their pension) might be up for taking part in the program.
Evelyn smiles whenever she talks about Kamila. She is already looking forward to watching her launch into the wider world and moving their friendship on to another level. “That is what we are looking for,” says Anna Geiser. “When the mentorship program works and the child’s marks start to get better, it is really lovely to see. When a child is ready to push forward alone that is the best and that is what we are all looking for.”
If you want to find out more about an educational mentorship and participate either as a mentor or mentee you can find more information on the Ausländerrat Dresden e.V website.