Sometimes after school I want to share an experience and I don’t even know in which language it has to come out of my head. I teach in German, English and sometimes in French. I don’t know in which language I think anymore. Especially when teaching to refugees. I’m slowly beginning to hate that word. They’re human beings. They’re people. They are boys, and girls, and they are here. That doesn’t make them less human than us. I hate calling them refugees. But they are. They seek refuge that we so often deny.
Before the holidays, I had one of my last classes with Hamed, an Afghan teen who speaks very good German. He was quite distracted lately, and even insolent at times. So as the others were busy working on a presentation they had to give during the next course, I sat next to him. I don’t even have time to say anything, he starts: “I’m sorry if I’m a bit elsewhere these days…”. “It’s ok…”, I say. He goes on: “You know, my sister is getting married soon…”. I’m not sure what that means for him, so I ask: “Isn’t it a happy news then?”. “No…not for me…she was my only friend here. Now I’m alone”. “Well, you have your friends here at school, don’t you?”. “I’m not sure I’ll stay after the holidays…”. “Ah, you’ve gotten a place in a regular class somewhere else?”, I ask. He shrugs: “I don’t know, but my family has been denied further asylum. So maybe I’ll be sent back to Afghanistan. Or go to another school. I don’t know”. Hamed has never seen Afghanistan, he grew up in Iran, where he was despised because of his nationality. He traveled his way towards Europe with his whole family, luckily, but if they are sent back, he will end up living in a country he has never seen. But he will be fluent in Turkish and German, thanks to geopolitics. Hamed scored the highest grades at school in Iran and is a promising student. Why do I even say that, why does that matter? Even if he were dumb he wouldn’t deserve to live in this uncertainty and to face the threat of a reconduction to a country he has never seen and which is not even safe. Now, two weeks later, he’s no longer there when I enter the classroom. I find out today that he has found a place in a regular class, in another school. This is not Kabul, at least.
Today, another talk happens which really makes me think that this world is not a good place at the moment. I was annoyed at Muatasem, one of my Syrian kids. He was so lazy right after his arrival half a year ago, then got much better, to the point that he’s one of the best in the classroom now. But sometimes, it requires a lot of efforts and time to get him working. Because there are twelve other kids like him, I put myself under pressure regarding what each of them learn. I’ve said it before, but it’s a matter of survival. Since they all have different levels and learn at different speeds, I have to tailor courses for each of them even when we’re working on one common text for example, so I have to be strict when it comes to them disrupting the course. Of course, most of the time it’s a bit of a joyous circus because after all they’re only kids and they deserve more than anyone else to laugh as much as they can, but they also need to learn, and it’s not always easy to do so when all of them are shouting around.
Today I have to spend so much time telling Muatasem to be quiet, to work please, to please stop balancing on his chair that at some point I tell him “Man! Das ist aber unmöglich!”, which isn’t the rudest thing but goes on to show that yes, I’m annoyed. He knows he pushed me a lot, and immediately looks very contrite. I don’t like provoking any kind of sadness but today he really annoyed me because he disrupts my class and he is clever enough not to do so. I think however that I forget he’s just a kid. And I forget where he comes from.
Since the others work pretty well by themselves, I take a chair and come over to Muatasem, sitting next to him. He still looks upset so I tell him: “I don’t like it when you don’t work because I know you can focus and learn, so it annoys me that you don’t”, I start. “I know…but there are so many things that turn in my head”, he says. Of course I already feel like a horrible teacher but now I have the opportunity to give him a pep talk if needed. “Look, I know it’s not an easy situation for you but here at school you have to try to just think of that hour we have, the tasks assigned, and ask if you don’t get them”. I wonder whether I’m some kind of sergent coaching a young soldier with my stupid “do you homework” rhetoric. But all this boy needs is an ear. He begins to talk. About what upsets him. He tells me he lost all motivation, because he thought it would be easier. He tells me he trusted the wrong person to come to Germany. He tells me working in factories in Turkey was too exhausting and he’s frightened to go back there. He thought he could ask to the German government for family reunion and that his parents would join him at some point but understood that it was no longer possible. He tells me that at first he didn’t want to learn German because he didn’t want to stay there, but that after a month he got so frustrated that he couldn’t interact with people everywhere that he decided to learn it. He tells me he loves that school and doesn’t understand why he can’t get a place here. He tells me there are so many things that frighten him that thoughts keep spinning and spinning and spinning in his head so much so that he can’t focus at school. He tells me that he misses his dad. That he used to play football with him and that he was his best friend. He tells me that he is scared to never see his loved ones again because a friend of his just found out that his dad had died in Aleppo recently. He tells me all that and I just want to do the only thing he needs right now and give him a hug and tell him that everything will be ok even if nothing looks like it just now. The other kids have long left the classroom, but we keep on talking. I tell him that I do understand, even if I haven’t lived what he’s going through. I tell him I also have problems sometimes, but that I try and leave them at the portal upon arriving to school (that’s actually a blatant lie but he doesn’t need to know it is). That any problem he has right now won’t be solved by him thinking about them so much. I can’t, because of the world we live in, tell him that any of it will get better so instead I tell him that yes, it sucks, and it probably won’t get better anytime soon. I tell him that he alone won’t be able to make things better all at the same time. But I also tell him that, no matter how desperate things look right now, he has his whole life ahead of him. I tell him that school isn’t his whole life, that if he goes to another school, he’ll get the opportunity to make new friends. I tell him that if he gets sent back to Turkey, no one will be able to take away everything he learned while here. I tell him that whatever knowledge he acquires will be his weapon to fight his way into the world. I tell him the more he learns the more he’ll be able to surround himself with good people. I tell him that he needs to create himself a safe haven because no one else will do that for him here. I tell him that I felt very lonely at times when I was his age and that books helped me a lot. While I’m saying all that I’m surprised because I’m not strong and I suffer epics fails in my own dealing with everyday issues, but I want him to be stronger and I want him to be happier. This has nothing to do with how I see life, but this kid, this one particular kid next to me at this moment, I want him to have enough weapons to survive through life’s unfair challenges. He says he wishes to become a better person, that he tries to be quiet and sit still and read but hasn’t succeeded so far. He tells me he doesn’t want to become religious (thank God I think), I tell him maybe it’s not his call, that it doesn’t make less of a person of him if he doesn’t read or enjoy reading books. That he needs to find his own solace, his very own passion that no one will take away from him, no matter where he is. He wants to learn martial arts, but the Senate for Youth doesn’t want to pay for it. I make a mental note to find him a martial arts course. When he’s done letting all these things off his chest, I tell him that sometimes, when someone doesn’t have answers anymore, it feels good just to share their thoughts with someone else, be it a friend or a stranger. “Yes, I feel better now…”, he says. I’m glad but that’s just a one off, and this boy needs more attention than what I can give him. I ask him whether he’d like to talk to someone else, we have a “social station” at school. I thought he would be reluctant but he seems relieved: “Yes, that would be good…I’m very thankful”. Kids think they have to be grateful, whereas you’re just doing your job…they think they owe you something for just paying attention to them. “You don’t need to thank me for listening. I’m here, you know that”, I tell him. I realize that he’s late for his next class so I send him away, telling him, since he’s going to sport, to enjoy every minute of it and to think of nothing else but this ball he’s going to kick. He’s actually very good at football, and I wish he had more opportunities to play with people his age outside of school. His mother would look for some club to join. This is not my place, but I’ll look anyway, even if I’m no replacement for the people he really needs and misses. This boy needs his mum. He needs his dad. Period. I might have made him feel slightly better for a few hours but after school he will go home in a flat he shares with three other underage refugees. He’ll be alone in his room or smoking shisha with a friend. And he’ll look at his phone hoping to get news from his family back in Damascus, not knowing whether he’ll see them again. And I’ll go home, wondering once more whether I did the right thing, what to make of all his sorrows, and why we are not taught all that in books.