"Welcome Class", November 3rd, 2015

She’s a girl in my integration class. She’s fourteen and comes from Lattakia, in Syria. She arrived a month ago. She wears a headscarf and is a very shy girl, hiding behind her scarf whenever she gets a chance. She had difficulties to learn the alphabet and for a while, was the only Arabic speaker in the room. Not anymore, since other Syrians and Palestinians now joined in. But she doesn’t have many friends. Not in her classroom, in any case.

She has been bullied by others at school ever since she arrived, because she can’t speak German. Ironically, those who bullied her are also in an integration class, only they are from European countries and were obliged to come here to follow their parents. They couldn’t care less about learning a new language.

Before the holidays, someone stole this Syrian girl’s phone. We teachers knew who it was but were forbidden to do anything because we don’t have proof. I have both victim and culprit in front of me every day, and I can’t take sides, and I teach them both equally, and I know the culprit needs my help too. But it’s hard to see a child crying after classes day after day and asking me to do something to stop the bullying, as I am powerless. All I can do is try and protect her from bullies with words they don’t want to hear. I can’t even comfort her since we live in another culture and she doesn’t understand my soothing words. But she knows and trusts me, and we talk a lot with our eyes.

Once I tried to talk the bullies into understanding what she has been through before she reached Germany. The only answers I got were: “We don’t want to talk to her, she’s not normal, she doesn’t understand anything”, “Of course there is war in her country, because people like her are escaping instead of fighting”. And so on. Utter nonsense that those kids probably don’t even understand. I would be interested to meet these kids’ parents, for them to talk so poorly about a girl they judge on her nationality and deem “abnormal” because she’s from another culture.

Today, after a long absence and the holidays, my Syrian girl comes back to our class. She’s all smiles. I divide the class between beginners and intermediates (where the bullies are to be found). I assign a task to the latter and start with the beginner’s group first. I sit next to her. I give German words, hear them being translated into Farsi, Albanian, Romanian, Turkish and Arabic, in a joyful hubbub. Nine boys and my Syrian girl, who talk, mime, try their best to understand together the language I’m trying to give them. They trace irregular letters, laugh at each other as they’re trying their luck at pronouncing the words. I lean over the Syrian girl and tell her in Arabic “I learn a new language, too.”. She raises her head and looks bewildered: ” [she speaks very fast and happily in Arabic and of course I don’t understand anything except “Arabic”]”. “Errr”, I answer, “I’m not that far yet”, which makes her laugh. We share this brief but beautiful moment and she goes back to working on her spelling with renewed interest, still smiling. It’s a good day for her, and for me because I see she’s happy.

I get up and go over to the other group, the “bullies”. We’re stuck into a boring grammar exercise. As I interact with them, every day, they open up, slowly. We are worlds apart, I don’t approve of their mentalities, but I think they are good kids in the end of the day. Only that, little by little, I will have to teach them tolerance, as well as a new language.

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