Welcome Class, February 22nd, 2016

Coming back from Lesvos made everything else look less important. Even writing about things. What is the point, since things aren’t getting any better? But I still share new experiences each day with the kids at school.

The welcome classes are ever changing. Some kids leave, because they found a better school, or because they joined a regular class. Others arrive, bringing with them their share of stories they unveil, sometimes months afterwards, sometimes straight upon their arrival.

Today, I’m surprised to see two new faces in my beginners’ class. Two teens, around 14. I didn’t ask their age, we started straight to talk about their stories. Hussein comes from Afghanistan. Amer (another one, I will get confused since there is already one in the advanced class) comes from Damascus, Syria. They were both granted temporary asylum in Germany and live together in a shelter for unaccompanied underage refugees. One that still hasn’t burned, despite the growing violence against refugees and their shelters in Germany (18 refugee shelters have been attacked in 2011, and 924 in 2015. Numbers look like they’re increasing for 2016…more information on that in German here).

They both lived in Turkey before coming to Europe. They both worked in factories in order to pay for their passage to the Greek islands. Amer arrived on Chios, Hussein on Kos. I ask them if they took the boats. They both say no, and show me pictures of inflatable boats instead. They thought I meant ferries. I tell them I know how a boat to the Greek islands looks like, and show them pictures of Lesvos from my phone. They look happy to discover I know what they are talking about. Amer tells me the Turkish police pierced his inflatable boat. His eyes tell more than his words, I don’t ask what they saw, I can only imagine too well. Likewise I know better than asking whether they traveled with their families; they’re alone now, so I want to be careful about how I will find out about their relatives.

For now, they seem happy to share their stories. Amer worked five months in a factory in Izmir, making handbags, and Hussein worked in a similar “job” for seven months. They both arrived in Germany about three months ago, and through Turkish, they understand each other. Three months, during which they became friends, and learned German together in the shelter. In fact, they speak better German than some kids who have been here for months now. Amer in particular is highly motivated to learn. As I repeat in English, which they both understand a little, a question I had originally asked in German, he interrupts and says “please, no English, I want, I need to learn German”. He’s a smart kid in survival mode. I explain to him that I want to make sure they understand me. “Yes, but in German please”. He’s going to master the language in no time, I can see it. Hussein is a bit more hesitant, and as I ask him to write down some words, he confides he never attended school in his life. He’s also very unhappy and overwhelmed because the other kids keep on talking, asking questions, laughing. It’s too noisy for him. He complains in Turkish that he wants to leave school. I make him laugh when I say “well that was our first class together, thanks for not even trying!”. He calms down, but is anxious nonetheless. Had I been warned about their arrivals, I could have come better prepared.

Over a boring document on how to build a sentence in German, we get to know each other. They both tell me about their families. They came all this way on their own. Amer is from Damascus. His parents are still there. They sent their four children to “safety” in Turkey, with the hope they will make it to Europe. One of his brothers just arrived yesterday in Macedonia and will try to join him in Germany. I explain to him that the border is quite difficult to cross, he rolls eyes as if to say “don’t worry, I’ve seen worse”. I tell him that I do hope his brother will be here soon, but that it might take longer than “in a few days”, as he seems to think he’ll arrive this week-end at the latest. Hussein’s brothers all are in Pakistan. He doesn’t tell me whether they’ll try to come here or not.

They ask me whether there are other Afghans and Syrians in the school, and both seem pleased to realize that they’re not the only outsiders. They’re cheeky, a bit impertinent as well, but they’re good kids. They faced so many dangers to be here, so I’m happy to see them safe, healthy and with smiling faces.

The two hours with the class are over way too fast, and I barely supervised the other kids, who were working on another boring grammatical point. Sometimes I hate doing that to them (who likes grammar?), but when I try my hand at something else than that they do ask for more. School is hard for everyone, but it’s a bit harder when you have to fight your way to get there from the other end of the world, and these kids know the value of your seat. They are here to learn as much as they can, and they report on their progresses to their loved ones in Gaza, Damascus, Kabul. Fortunately, they are at an age where their brains are like sponges and retain all given information. They come in the class thinking they are outcasts. Now they are at a stage where they know they are part of a group. They know they are that little bit different from German kids, but they are no longer ashamed of it because here, at the very least, they are welcome. It is a fragile, temporary welcome, and them being at school doesn’t stop war, or any atrocity that happens and is allowed to happen by decision makers and cold-hearted bureaucrats in their native countries, but it gives them the weapon of knowledge. With it, they will be better armed in life than any of those armed with bombs and kalashnikovs destroying lives and shattering dreams across the world.

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