I consider myself a migrant. I have lived abroad for 29 years. I now teach in “welcome classes” in Germany, which are set up to teach newly arrived students. At my school we have two welcome classes of 12 students aged 12 and 18. It varies from school to school, but a lot of schools have been obliged to have a welcome class – and at least in my school, it feels like being on an island within the school: our classes are quite isolated.
Some of my pupils are traumatized. Some pupils started telling me in the second lesson about the beatings they used to suffer in their classrooms when in Iraq or Syria. Some have experienced hunger, torture, detention. Some crossed the Mediterranean in small boats. Before coming here, they lived in camps in Greece, Italy or Spain.
In December 2016, a boy threatened to kill us all. This was on the morning of the terrorist attack in Berlin. He had been tortured when in Iraq and his anger was triggered whenever anyone spoke loudly. He said he would kill us all, starting with me. The police ended up taking him to different psychiatric services and charges were pressed against him. He insisted it had all been a joke and I begged our headmaster to let him stay. Nothing ever happened again, and he got top marks. He blossomed. I’m still in touch with him. He wants to be a mechanic.
Policy-makers need to understand much more therapy is needed – through sports, music and arts. Many children are blocked, they cannot speak, there are high levels of fear and aggression. Some miss school a lot because they are in physical or psychological pain which doctors cannot heal.
Early on, I let them draw. They just need to relax. This is something that has always worked at moments of tension in the classroom. Quite a lot comes out there.
Later on I let them write a little text about themselves, which we hang up in the classroom with a picture of themselves. These have been some of the most incredible experiences. I let them know I see them all as individuals with a really important story to tell. I allow them to write in their mother tongue, in English, and in their very basic German. We use Google Translate. Beautiful texts have arisen. It doesn’t always work, but it can. A boy from Somalia once gave me eight pages of written text about his life story. It made me realize these kids all want to be listened to, all of them. Even if not all of them show it.
We’re going to work with the Academy of Film. The students will make a film called ‘My Berlin’. Last year, the students wanted to recreate their flight from Turkey to Greece, so we filmed it on a lake. This year we will be working with the well-known pianist Aeham Ahmad from Yarmouk in Syria who is going to do musical trauma workshops with our students. We are very fortunate to have this opportunity and I think it will be a real healing experience for the kids.
In regular classrooms, teachers need to be detached to get results, a little cold with the students. That doesn’t work at all with these pupils. They need a lot of encouragement to be told they have something to say. And they bring so many gifts to the country. I think most will make a really positive contribution to society if only allowed to do so.
Rituals are also very important during the day. We say good morning in all the languages in the classroom – and then we move on to only speaking in German. We are very clear about the school rules. We’ve translated them into many different languages.
As soon as I see that there’s a conflict that has racial, religious or gender triggers, I go right in – and tell them these views are against the rules. Mutual respect is the most important thing in my classroom, and I make sure that everybody likes coming to school, to a place where they don´t have to experience fear or discrimination and where we live in peace.
I have had no formal training in trauma therapy. And yes, I’ve felt overwhelmed. Students don´t know where their family members are, whether they are dead or alive. Some get involved in prostitution, people trafficking, forced marriage. Once it was six at a time in my classroom. And there are also students with learning difficulties or only very limited formal schooling. Some students have years of work experience but have only started learning our alphabet.
We also need to take care of ourselves. Mutual support among teachers is very important. Often teachers don’t realise that traumatized children cannot learn like other children. These children have often become the head of the household – they quickly speak better German than their parents. They don’t have a comfort zone in which to heal from their trauma. We have one music teacher who has no sensitivity for these kids – he doesn’t understand why they can’t clap a rhythm, he shouts at them, and says they’re not learning. There is one boy who was held in detention in Iraq. If you shout at him, he runs out of the room and doesn’t come back.
The biggest problem is when they’re old, above 16, not only traumatized but have also missed a lot of schooling. There’s not a good infrastructure in place for these children. Some go on to do their A-Levels and there are vocational training schools, but the places are limited. There are not enough alternatives for these pupils, and some end up on the street dealing drugs. We’ve had such cases. I don’t think the politicians have realized this yet. Gifted young people who just need to be given a chance. The younger they are, and the more previous schooling they’ve had, the better chances they have.
Refugee youngsters are seen as a burden, especially young men, but they can be such a contribution to the country. Language is important but inclusion is really key. And we would really need more music, art and sports therapy, ideally imparted by people who really understand what trauma means.
I encourage these brave youngsters to keep dreaming and fighting because they experience a lot of racism and discrimination here, especially Arab boys. These students want to be listened to. This is their healing process – that their story exists. We, as teachers, can help validate their story, but we need support to do so. Because these kids are great, and I do love my job despite everything. It always amazes me how sometimes we have the world’s problems in our classroom but also the world’s talents and beauty. Every day is intense and it is never boring.