It is early in Camelia Jupiter’s Friday afternoon German class, and her refugee students already are stumbling through the past tense. Riad, a 26-year-old from the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala wants to visit an eye doctor because he hasn’t been seeing clearly. He tried to explain that he had attempted the visit that morning, but couldn’t get an appointment. He would have to try again on Monday.
“Ich gehe heute,” [I go today] he said. Jupiter, sensing the chronological dissonance in her student’s story, smiles to no one in particular and begins walking Riad through a more grammatically correct version of his account.
“Du bist gegangen…” [You went], she corrects, stressing each new syllable. “…aber keiner war da” [but there was no one there]. Riad nods and the lesson proceeds. Young men from Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria—a cross-section of Germany’s refugee population—enter the room, greet the teacher, and take a seat. Among them is the late-arriving Ahmed, who before sitting next to Riad, opens the door and proclaims “Willkommen!” as if his already seated classmates were dinner guests just now arriving at his home.
Jupiter’s matter-of-fact teaching style and her casual confidence belie the gravity of her task. In hundreds of classes like this one, housed in schools, church basements, and community centers, Germany’s national identity for generations to come, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, hangs in the balance.
Organized by the Christian welfare group Diakonie Michaelshoven and recognized by the German Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Jupiter’s class meets five days a week in Kalk, a Cologne neighborhood east of the Rhine. The course teaches refugees the basics of the language, so that they, according to an English translation of the website, can “make themselves understood as quickly as possible.”
An hour into the class, students are still arriving while Jupiter reviews material from a test they are to get back later in the lesson. “Orientierung” is the topic. She refers to the workbook, where a headline reads, “Finding your way in a new city.” Students refer to an illustration of a town in their workbooks and give directions: “from the bakery, turn left at the school and go further to get to the church1
Occasionally, while Jupiter is explaining a topic—the difference between “weit” [far] and “weiter” [further], for example—the class discourse ripples out into a Babel-like cacophany of competing explanations in varying languages—Arabic, French, Igbo—until Jupiter zeroes in on the confused student and confirms his understanding.
“Ibrahim, alles klar?” He nods his head, and class proceeds. Although this process seems effective, it occasionally leaves Jupiter exasperated. Alone at the front of her classroom she depends on the translation help of her students to get a point across, and rarely receives total confirmation that her work is bearing fruit.
“I try my best. Maybe I expect a little too much. Most of them have been here at least half a year and speak very poorly,” she says, acknowledging that for most of her class, the new culture and language—even the alphabet—are as foreign as her surname.
In the months since refugees began streaming across German borders, a global debate has broken out about what mass immigration means for the country’s future. To the rightwing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which saw a significant uptick in popularity in Sunday’s regional elections, they represent a threat to the country’s security and way of life. To certain economists and government officials, they represent a welcome expansion of the nation’s aging workforce and taxpayer base. “When it comes to refugees, the billions of euros we are planning to invest in education, kindergartens and schools will of course have an effect like a small stimulus package,” Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Reuters.
But to the country’s middle, they are a source of anxiety, a question with no answer. In a 2015 poll, national broadcaster ARD found that from September to October, German anxieties over the refugee influx rose significantly.
Whatever these refugees are or are not, they are young, very young by German standards. According to the Pew Research Council’s statistics from October of 2015, 21.2% of Germans were 65 or older last year. The German Bild Zeitung reported that German authorities estimate that 1.5 million refugees entered Germany in 2015. Of them, over half (55%) of them were between 18-34, according to Pew.
That means approximately 825,000 of Germany’s asylum seekers are between 18 and 34 years old. Even if only half of them remain in the country in coming decades, Germany will have to account for over 400,000 52-68 year olds, many with their own families and dependents, by 2050. Whether they become a drain on the country’s welfare system or valuable contributors to it depends on the work of Camelia Jupiter and her tens of thousands like her.
“Yesterday I listened to the news again. There are more and more critical voices. They say that if they can’t speak German well enough, they can’t study here. The language is so crucial,” Jupiter said.
Ingo Kramer, President of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, struck the same chord when asked by reporters in Berlin about the most important factor for the successful integration of refugees. “Deutsch, Deutsch, Deutsch,” said Kramer.
Despite its importance, some have found the state’s language initiatives lacking. Dr. Ulrich Ammon, a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Duisberg-Essen and the author of Die Stellung der Deutschen Sprache in der Welt [The Position of the German Language in the World], criticized what he called the German state’s “poor” and understaffed efforts at educating refugees in its national tongue.
“There were a million immigrants last year by conservative estimations. They would need at least 50,000 teachers. They haven’t employed enough,” he said. “Many [refugees] have been waiting weeks and weeks and haven’t gotten access to a class.”
The state provides German classes for refugees who demonstrate a significant Bleibewahrscheinlichkeit—likelihood of staying—and hail from a one of list of imperiled countries—Syria among them. Others—Algerians for instance—must finance their classes alone or look for alternative options. On the Rhine’s west bank, a group of Afghani refugees meets twice a week in classes organized by the Thomaskirche and Christuskirche, a pair of partnering Protestant congregations in Cologne. While parents and teenagers attend a language class in a renovated wing of the still under-construction church, their younger siblings are tended to in an all-purpose room across the street.
Atefe, a 15-year-old Afghani who recently was given permission to attend high school classes, sits next to her mother and father and introduces them. She smirks and rolls her eyes when her dad struggles through his own introduction. Across the street, Mohammed, her 10-year-old brother, tosses a ball with his friend Wahid while exchanging their favorites animals (squirrels2), soccer teams (FC Barcelona), and music (Kanye West). It’s not long until one infers that integration might come easier for Mohammed than his father.
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According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (EFR), foreign language learners need to reach at least an A2 level to perform basic tasks. Dubbed “way stage or elementary,” A2 denotes the ability to “describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.” In addition to daily practical language experience, the average literate student, says Dr. Ammon, requires 660 45-minute teaching units to comfortably reach the A2 level. Illiterate students typically demand an additional 300 units.
In 2050, when the first histories of Germany’s integration project are written, the country will be graded on its efficacy in educating refugees in its native tongue. It’s a “huge” undertaking, as Ammon says, because it extends not just to today’s Mohammed and Wahid, but also to his parents, to Atefe, his sister, and Riad and Ahmed, the generation in between.
Before dismissing her class for break, Camelia Jupiter distributes the graded tests. She’s pragmatic but hopeful when announcing their disappointing results. Ahmed, whose test grade was among the class’ best, but whose confidence seems to have taken a hit, makes a somber appeal before leaving the room.
“I want to stay here. I want integration with the Germans. I want to speak good,” he says.
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Camelia Jupiter nods, understanding her student’s broken effort. She looks back at him, then at her book, and then smiles to no one in particular as if to say, “Not bad, considering they still have to learn the future.”