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Refugees in Europe – 2016 and 2017

By Sarah A. Hutchison, TAM Associate Director

Reaching out to Refugees

Last summer U.S. media focused a great deal of attention on the refugee crisis in Europe. The main point of interest involved the Syrians fleeing civil war at home: the crossings, the shipwrecks, the flight towards Europe. During this time, we repeatedly listened to and read news stories drawing attention to what many called the biggest migration crisis since WWII.[i]

One of the TAM students opined that it certainly was not a crisis. We were instead witnessing multiple crises which had all been brewing for some time. There was nothing new, nothing unforeseen. Just a series of political missteps and policy failures in the face of terrible hardships far away.

It’s complicated to look back and think about what could have been done to prevent a current challenge. And one wonders if the only possible outcome of that kind of speculation can be criticism.

Instead of hypothesizing, I was curious to know what individuals in Europe were doing as refugees arrived. One German colleague in Bremen told me he had “adopted” a teen-aged refugee named Mohammed. I said “Oh, he lives with you?” No, my colleague explained, I take him out golfing and help him with his English and German language skills. Another guy I know in Berlin regularly visited an old department store, which had been repurposed to house refugees, and he gave German lessons there. Another one shuttled day-old baked goods from restaurants which could no longer sell them to a facility outside Berlin where refugees were housed. A professor from Hannover said that her university had sent out an email asking speakers of certain languages and dialects to volunteer their services in assisting refugees without German-language skills. They built a data base including the names and contact information for people who had the language skills needed to provide translation services. An American in Paris told me that his son made sandwiches at his elementary school every Wednesday. Teachers and parents then distributed the food later in the day to refugees living in near-by temporary shelters. Most of these people said they felt compelled to do something to help the refugees arriving in their countries.

Next, I found two UNC-CH undergraduates who had recently been in Paris. One was an American guy who spoke Arabic and French. He had spent a summer providing legal assistance to Syrian refugees seeking political asylum in France. Another was an Italian-British woman who had volunteered to help refugees while studying at Sciences-Po Paris. She found out what refugees needed and then brought donated items such as blankets, socks, and coats to them.

The undergrads were really intriguing when they talked about how their volunteer work had impacted them in the long term. The Italian-British woman said that working to help the refugees showed her what really mattered to her. It “made my heart sing,” she said. The American said when he got home from Paris, an immediate family member died unexpectedly. His loss was eased, he explained, when he thought about the Syrian refugees he had met in Paris who had also endured the death of family members coupled with the loss of a home, all possessions, and a native country. In the context of the enormous hardship borne by the refugees he had come to know in Europe, he felt less devastated and better equipped to cope with his own terrible circumstances.

All of these stories interested me a lot. But the most compelling story I heard was Christian’s. Christian Wilhelm works at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He’s based in a Social Sciences Research Center, the Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, which offers several different international MA-level programs. He is in charge of marketing, communications, and the overall administration of these programs. I recently spent a week in Berlin thanks to a European-Union-funded staff exchange program. While there I asked a lot of questions about Christian’s idea to enable refugees to join GeTMA – the German-Turkish Master’s Program Humboldt has run in conjunction with The Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, Turkey for the past ten years. My German colleague wanted to enable refugees to join the MA program for the first year and then matriculate as full-fledged Humboldt University students in year two. After that second year of study in Berlin, they would end up with a German MA degree in German-Turkish Studies. The GeTMA Program’s structure was flexible, and Christian was determined and creative enough to make this vision a reality. His initiative led to the creation of the first graduate-level program in Germany which aimed at true integration for the newly-arrived refugees. Other programs designate refugees as “guest listeners” who come to universities to study German language and don’t have the chance to earn and accrue university-level credit. As Daniela Jahn, a staff member at the Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, explained, “GeTMA was the perfect fit for the refugee degree seekers because students don’t have to have German-language skills, and they can come in from various disciplines.”


A German Administrator’s Perspective

Christian made two preliminary assumptions – the first was that there were refugees in Germany who had successfully completed undergraduate degrees and had enough English-language fluency to participate in this MA-level program taught entirely in English. In this assumption, he was correct. Fifteen refugees applied last summer to what is now called the GeTMA Berlin Program. Christian’s second assumption was that these applicants would be without the documentation necessary to apply to and enroll in the MA program through the traditional channels. This assumption turned out to be mostly false as many refugees do have copies of their transcripts, degrees, and language certifications stored on their cell phones.

Of the fifteen individuals who initially applied to the GeTMA Berlin program, eleven were accepted. Now, after their first year of study is over, all eleven remain enrolled. They hail from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Tanzania, and Sudan and range in age from 24 to 32 years old. As is the norm for Germans undertaking university studies in Germany, these students do not pay any tuition. Their student fees are also waived due to their refugee status. At this point, Christian is positive as he reflects on the initiative. It has gone along “much better that I thought,” he explains. “My first intention was not to do something good, but something necessary.” The happy end result, he noted, is that the program has gained some very strong students.

Christian is forthright about the bureaucratic challenges he and his colleagues faced in establishing this program. Enrollment, housing, and insurance issues all came into play. Daniela, who works with Christian and is in charge of Student and Alumni Services, even accompanied one of the refugees to her six-hour-long asylum hearing. As the Humboldt team welcomed the refugees during an initial orientation session, they still were not 100% sure they had the green light to run the program from the top administrators. Luckily, all obstacles were eventually overcome, and the GeTMA Berlin students were able to start classes on time in October 2016. Christian and his colleagues received no start-up funds for this project, but they managed to cobble resources together from existing sources. The Humboldt team is now vetting applications for a second cohort.

Two Refugees’ Perspective

Two of the GeTMA Berlin students were willing to share their stories with me. They asked not to be photographed and to be identified only by their first names. An Afghani who came to Germany because his work made it unsafe for him to stay in his country, Hamidullah has a background in Business Administration. He had originally applied to a host of German graduate programs. The GeTMA Berlin program was the only one to which he was accepted. He admits that he was quite negative about this path at first, but he explains that the first year “went better than I thought,” and he calls the experience “amazing.” He is especially grateful to the Humboldt administrators with whom he has worked. “I am very thankful to the student-support crew,” he notes. “They have been very helpful and patient with us and have always helped us even with our legal problems.” In the future he plans to “work with organizations that particularly focus on refugee integration. I believe a lot of refugee talents are wasted and mishandled in Germany and around Europe. Having experienced the flaws myself, I hope I could bring a positive change to it one day.”


Karam is a Syrian refugee. His comments echo Hamidullah’s when he expresses gratitude for the attention he has received from the Humboldt team. He describes the program as “challenging” and highlights the role of the GeTMA program administration. “They surprised me,” he notes, “with the…value they give to students and for fighting to get the right for us as refugees to be students in Humboldt, their hard work and interest in us was [a] surprise.” When I asked him why he applied to the GeTMA Berlin Program he explained, “I applied because I wanted to improve my critical thoughts and improve my language, beside that I thought it is a great chance to be part of…academic life in Berlin [and to]…introduce the Syrian political situation from an inside perspective.”


Karam and Hamidullah both point to the assistance they have received. If Christian’s initial motivation to create a new track of GeTMA stemmed from a desire to do something that was “necessary” to help, he has accomplished this goal. Both GeTMA Berlin students who contributed to this report underscore how much the Humboldt staff members have assisted them. In addition, these displaced individuals see their enrollment in the program as means to achieve personal and professional goals. They want to use their lived experiences as refugees to contribute to solutions moving forward. Neither one of these findings is terribly surprising. What I did not immediately foresee was the way in which the perspectives of the refugees could contribute so much to the experience of the TAM students in Berlin with whom they share a classroom.


An American Student’s Perspective

In November 2016 I checked in via email with one of the TAM students in Berlin, Lauren Gaillard, to see how she was doing. She wrote me back with this amazing message:

“a few [of the] cool things that are happening over here include: that I got asked to stay on as a student assistant with Population Europe — the organization that works with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research; and my German is really coming along! I love my Fluchtlingspolitik der EU class since we even have refugees from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in our class, alongside those in the GeT MA program who come from Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Turkey, etc. and the EuroMasters students who come from Russia and Western European countries. Our discussions are amazing and my mind is being blown with how intelligent everyone is and how knowledgeable people are about organizations and policies on global politics. So, basically I love it here.  Oh and I get to take a course at FU with the previous director of the Sprachzentrum of HU and language advisor for the Council of Europe who created ERASMUS. Crazyyyy.”

Many of the TAM students send me positive accounts of their overseas experiences, but this answer was truly extraordinary. I had to know more about what it was like to learn alongside the GeTMA Berlin students. Once I had the chance to quiz Lauren in person about her experience sharing a classroom with refugees it was months later in Berlin on June 1st, 2017. Her enthusiasm still ran very high. She explained to me that there had been about twenty students total in her “Refugee Politics of the EU” class at Humboldt. She “instantly” noticed the difference that the GeTMA Berlin students’ participation made to the class. Lauren noted that the ways in which all of the students learned, responded to one another, and asked questions were markedly different due to the presence of the immigrants. This young American woman highlighted the perspectives of the West voiced by the internationals in the class, and she explained the extent to which what was happening in the US political realm seemed of vital importance to the refugees in her classroom. She noted the “cynical” approach many of them took to the EU, to the US, and even to her as an American national. Lauren also underscored the need many of the GeTMA Berlin students felt to speak on behalf of their whole native country’s population. Lauren explained that having access to these diverse and passionate points of view “reshaped my entire picture of what is going on.”

Some of what Lauren described to me about her in-class experience took me back to November 18, 2016 when, just days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Professor David Coates of Wake Forest University gave a TAM lecture here on campus entitled Brexit in the Wake of the US Election.” We had arranged for some of the Humboldt students to watch the talk via video conference. It was midday here and early evening in Berlin, and we could see the students in Berlin enjoying wine and snacks while glued to the screen at the front of their classroom. As soon as Professor Coates finished his remarks and offered to answer questions, a young woman showed up in the full frame of our monitor, announced that she was Syrian, and asked “What does a Trump administration mean for Syria?” Though his focus had been on Brexit and his answer was mere conjecture, our speaker did his best to respond. Next, a young man in the Berlin audience appeared, identified himself as Afghani, and asked, “What does a Trump administration mean for Afghanistan?” I was struck by the urgent tone of these questions, which seemed to stray more than a little from the lecture’s main topic, and the extent to which these young people in Berlin perceived that American presidential election results would have profound effects on them in Germany and in the countries of their birth.

Just as Christian was delighted to discover that his efforts to help refugees by creating a special track of the GeTMA program just for them had in fact also helped the program by enrolling highly intelligent and academically able individuals, I’ve been thrilled to understand the extent to which the creation of GeTMA Berlin has enriched the experiences of TAM students such as Lauren and has contributed to the program as a whole. The positive ripple effects of Christian’s initiative in Berlin are just starting to be understood. I’m looking forward to tracking more of these stories involving refugees in Europe and investigating the links between service, experiential learning, and education in the year ahead.

[i] Interestingly, this summer, migration continues, but the US headlines are dominated by news about President Trump.

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