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Projects with refugees
The refugee crisis is one of the chief challenges of our times. The Goethe-Institut plays a part in the integration of refugees in Germany and, in cooperation with partners, has also been organizing various cultural and educational programmes in the regions of origin, for example in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and in a number of cities in Turkey, since 2013. The different projects are presented in reports and interviews here.

First Aid in German – volunteer language guides in Göttingen

Volunteer language guides in the Goethe-Institut Göttingen; Photo: Pepe Egger
Volunteer language guides in the Goethe-Institut Göttingen; Photo: Pepe Egger


Volunteer language guides are crucial to the integration of refugees. That’s why the Goethe-Institut offers free weekend courses that teach the basics of teaching German as a second language. This is a report from such a course in Göttingen.

When, near the end of the summer, the numbers of refugees arriving in Germany grew and grew, Jannes, a 20-year-old student majoring in computer science and mathematics in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and with a strawberry blond shimmer in his hair, decided to stop talking and do something.

He simply sat himself down on the floor of a refugee dormitory in the neighbourhood of Weende in Göttingen and “taught anyone who wanted to learn how to say hello and goodbye in German.” Four weeks later, he was teaching German lessons, at first without any materials or educational baggage, then gradually better equipped and now as a permanent fixture.

Sibylle is a psychologist who recently retired. She spontaneously set up a table in another refugee home in Göttingen and began teaching German. She now works Monday through Friday mornings as a volunteer language guide.

A weekend course takes the place of uni studies

Today, on a Saturday morning, the two are sitting with sixteen other volunteers in the garden pavilion of the Goethe-Institut Göttingen taking a weekend course (Basics of German as a foreign language) for volunteer language “guides.” The course is the Goethe-Institut’s answer to the sudden demand for learning German as well as the equally sudden supply of volunteers who want to teach it. The course is meant to support, advise and train them in their work.

“A course like this,” according to Dr Roland Meinert, regional head of the Goethe-Institut in Germany, “cannot and is not meant to replace years of studying to teach German as a foreign language. It’s meant to enable people who want to help to take their first steps in this territory.” The instructor, Ilsemarie Waechter, is quite aware of how difficult this is. It would be madness to want to learn something it takes others four years to learn in only two days.

But that’s not the point. But many people are interested in special educational issues and one can hardly imagine a more fascinated audience. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Göttingen is a university city. The people assembled here consistently come from academic professions: anthropologists, scholars of German, of Slavic languages, psychologists, retired education professors, French teacher trainees.

A sense of humour and flexibility are what matter

Gohar, one of the participants, tells of her work in Rosenthaler Hof, a branch of Friedland reception centre. She has up to 70 learners of German in the class, whose children she busies in a corner to reduce the noise level. “Good day, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me.” Gohar is responsible for the most basic of all basics. Her students are the very newly arrived who stay here only a few weeks because they are then scattered from Friedland all over Germany.

Gohar knows how it feels to arrive here without understanding a word of German. She came from Armenia and experienced it herself. She also has the necessary acting skills and sense of humour to win the new arrivals over for her German lessons. “I enter the room and call ‘Madrasa, madrasa’ (school),” she explains, “then the people laugh and come to me.”

Flexibility is important as Ilsemarie Waechter, the Goethe-Institut instructor, also explains. The requirements for the volunteer language guides could not be more different in terms of the level of education, the learning culture, talent, motivation, and the literacy rate of the learners.

That’s why they’re also not told what should be taught first and what is most important. What linguistic situations do refugees need to be prepared for first? Doctor's appointments? Finding their way in the city? Shouldn’t they learn first of all how to make an emergency call in case there’s a fire? Or should they perhaps memorize culinary vocabulary, because “they need to what the tomato put on their plate is called”? How to open a bank account can be quite acute, but they can surely wait to learn how to sort their waste.

“Zdravstvuyte. Kak vas zovut?”

You soon realize: that the first thing you need to know to teach a language, even before correct word order and verb endings, is to put yourself in the shoes of the learners. Ilsemarie Waechter uses a very effective trick to illustrate how it feels to be immersed in a foreign language. “Zdravstvuyte. Kak vas zovut? Ya zhivu v göttingene, Ya zhivu v northeime.” Suddenly it’s all mud to the course participants. A mini lesson in Russian, “Hello. What’s your name?” is enough to make them feel completely lost in a sea of sounds and tones that all join together to gobbledygook.

“Kak vas zovut”, the participants mumble along, hiding from the eyes of the instructor, trying to imitate their seat neighbour and hoping that at some point the penny will drop and what they’ve said will stick.

For a moment, the volunteers realize how important their help can be and how crucial their work as language guides is. This is all the more true when asylum seekers are not entitled to take the language and integration courses until the state has decided whether they can stay at all.
Pepe Egger
October 2015
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