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Refugee School Helps Traumatized Children Reach Their Potential

A school for refugees and migrants in Munich has been working for two decades to help unaccompanied children get an education. Its founder, Michael Stenger, spoke to Refugees Deeply about the needs – and huge potential – of children who flee their homes.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
School for young refugees
Abdinasir (left) from Somalia and Ifeanyi from Nigeria sit during a lesson in the “SchlaU-Schule” in Munich, Germany. NICOLAS ARMER

After working with refugees in Germany for 30 years, Michael Stenger’s expertise is in now in high demand. Long before the recent influx of refugees into Europe, and especially Germany, he saw that the German public school system was falling short in educating and integrating young refugees and migrants, especially those who arrived alone.

There are more than 300,000 refugee children in Germany. They account for about 2 percent of all students in German public schools, a number that fluctuates from state to state. In 2015, the number of children who arrived without their families increased dramatically to 42,309, according to the latest available data from the German Federal Bureau of Statistics.

In 2000, Stenger founded a nonprofit school for lone refugee children in Munich, called SchlaU-Schule (SchlaU School). The school has since expanded to more than 300 students, giving refugee and migrant teenagers a chance to catch up on their interrupted educations through smaller classes and intensive mentoring.

The school is state-approved and follows the official German curriculum, teaching subjects like mathematics, geography and ethics, but its first priority is teaching German. The goal is for each refugee student to earn a secondary school qualification. Additionally, social workers help students with integration issues outside of school, from dealing with authorities to processing traumatic experiences. The school has won several awards in Germany, and Stenger was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2009.

Refugees Deeply spoke with Stenger about the current problems young refugees are facing in Germany, what SchlaU-Schule has learned over the years, and how to address the special needs of lone migrant children and teenagers.

Refugees Deeply: What prompted you to found SchlaU-Schule?

Michael Stenger: After working with refugees for more than 13 years, full time and as a second job, I wanted to be self-employed and opened a language school in 1997. The city administration knew me from working in the field and sent a lot of lone underage refugees to my courses. I realized they needed much more attention, especially outside of school lessons. I knew that it was pedagogically irresponsible to put a 17-year-old refugee teenager next to a manager learning his fourth language. So I thought about how to design an education program specifically for underage refugees that is as much in line as possible with the regular school system.

Refugees Deeply: Has SchlaU’s work changed in response to the large influx of refugees to Germany in 2015 and 2016?

Stenger: Our expertise is very important to the state as well as private agencies. We have 20 years of experience – from teaching literacy to underage refugees all the way to helping them with entering the work life. There’s nothing comparable in Germany. The demand for what we do is huge, which makes us happy. It proves that we have been doing things right and continue to do so.

Refugees Deeply: Have you been considering expanding the school?

Stenger: We have about 320 students, and we shouldn’t have more. We want to maintain a family-like feel in the school community, which is essential for building trust. Our education is specially geared to individual needs, and this way we get the best possible results. That wouldn’t be doable if we had a huge number of students.

In order to share our expertise nationwide, we founded SchlaU Workshop for Migration Education, which distributes teaching materials. These help teachers and volunteers to better understand the challenges of refugee education, which are related to their life in their home country and how they fled from there. When you sit in front of someone who is really struggling, it helps to have basic tools at hand to deal with this situation. If you know how to navigate it, it can have very positive effects. We don’t want to build a para-public education system; that’s clearly the responsibility of the state. Instead, we want to find ways to pass on what we have learned in any form we can think of, teaching materials, advanced trainings and professional development.

Refugees Deeply: What lessons has SchlaU learned over the years that could be useful to help Germany tackle the current situation?

Stenger: It’s important to give refugees the opportunity to find a way back to themselves, to restore and strengthen their identity. You need to tell them: “You are a valuable person, no matter what other people have said.” It’s all about a trusting relationship. Also, we’ve found ways to manage the very different educational qualifications of refugees, spanning from an illiterate person who only speaks his or her native language to a high school graduate. We have established a very open and fluid system. Some only need a year to learn German well enough to earn a middle school degree.

Refugees Deeply: Where do the underage refugees you have been working with come from?

Stenger: Wherever there is a war. A large part of our students came from Afghanistan, who are in an especially dire situation at the moment, as they are afraid to be sent back. Other students came from Iraq; we had times when we only got Yazidis, then only Kurds. Over a period of five years, we had lots of child soldiers from Sierra Leone. Occasionally we have girls from Tibet, who had an extraordinary long and difficult [journey] to Germany – it’s admirable how they put up with everything and sit in the classroom as if they were the sun personified. And in the last few years we’ve obviously had many refugees from Syria.

Refugees Deeply: What are the main problems currently facing refugee youth in Germany?

Stenger: The main problem at the moment is that conservative governments, especially the Bavarian one, don’t have anything better to do but to make it more difficult for refugees. They downright strive against them instead of against the reasons for their flight, because they’re after right-wing votes. At least the private sector is helping, because of the skilled worker shortage they’re facing. That’s why companies are eager to offer apprenticeships.

Another big problem is the fear of being deported. Imagine you are from Eritrea and your friend from Afghanistan, who sits next to you in school, is supposed to be deported. You are not only sad about that; you are scared the same thing could happen to you. This is a very difficult situation right now, our social workers and teachers are distraught.

Refugees Deeply: Could you talk about your work with unaccompanied minors – what specific challenges do lone children deal with in Germany?

Stenger: The degree of traumatization varies a lot. Some of them might not have been affected by acts of war and assaults against them, but they are traumatized because they are separated from their family, friends, native language and culture. They might have been told that they’re the family’s only hope; perhaps they need to send money back. They bear a lot of responsibility and they don’t see why going to school would be better than starting to work immediately. We need to explain to them that they can help their families much better if they get a proper education first.

Many lone underage refugees have gone through very stressful situations. Many women, and also young men, have had to endure sexual assaults. Some of them have seen their siblings die along the way. We need to welcome them with dignity.

Sometimes the cultural shock can be a big issue. We need to teach them that all humans are to be treated equally, including women. After the assaults in Cologne, we were asked a lot how we deal with these kind of problems – we’ve always been approaching these kind of problems from the very beginning of every course.

Refugees Deeply: What lessons have you learned at SchlaU that could be useful to other education initiatives working with unaccompanied refugee youth in Europe?

Stenger: Most importantly, I learned from these young refugees how much pain and frustration one can endure and still get up and succeed. The positive outcome of our efforts and the importance for the whole society gives it meaning. It makes it worthwhile. These young people can be our intercultural interpreters of the future.

This interview was conducted in German and translated into English. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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