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Germany

Germany's Greek Community Faces School Dilemma

A recent proposal to set up Turkish-medium schools in Germany was strongly criticized by politicians. The response ignores the fact that one immigrant group in Germany, the Greeks, has for decades had its own schools.

Students in Bremen

What language should these Turkish students in Germany be instructed in?

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan ruffled feathers on a recent trip to Germany when he proposed setting up Turkish-language schools and universities in the country. Germany is home to Western Europe's biggest population of Turks -- some 2.5 million. Turkey could also send over teachers to Germany, Erdogan suggested.

While his comments triggered criticism by Germany's politicians and rekindled a debate on integrating immigrants into society, sending children of immigrant background to a school that teaches in their mother tongue is not as unusual as the row suggests.

Germany's Greek immigrant community has for decades had the option of sending their children to Greek schools where the curriculum is set by the Greek state and where Greek is the language of instruction. Every fifth of an estimated 47,000 students of Greek origin attends one of 35 Greek schools in Germany.

Most students switch to the Greek school system after secondary school with the aim of getting a Greek high school diploma and thus securing a place at a Greek university.

Serving a practical purpose

Michael Damanakis of the University of Crete in Greece, a former teacher in a Greek school in Germany in the 1970s, said the schools had little to do with preserving the national identity of Germany's Greek immigrants, many of whom came to the country in the 1960s to fill a demand for cheap labor.

A classroom with students in a high school in Darmstadt in Germany

Germany's school system has been criticized for failing to offer equal chances

"They [the schools] serve a practical purpose," Damanakis said. "The parents simply want to make use of the easier conditions of the Greek school system to get a place at a university for their children, something that the German school system doesn't allow because of its structure."

Germany's three-tiered school system, each tailored to specific education abilities and skills, has been widely criticized by educational experts. A slew of international studies have found fault with the system which they say discriminates in particular against children from immigrant backgrounds.

Damanakis however pointed out those Greek schools in Germany couldn't be the answer.

"Greek schools in Germany have no credible legitimacy from an education viewpoint," he said. "These schools separate Greek children from Germans and other nationalities and you shouldn't forget that the segregation of minorities, whether ethnic or social, leads to marginalization and unequal opportunities in the long-term."

"A more complex situation today"

The first Greek schools in Germany were founded in the 1960s. Over a million Greeks came to Germany between 1959 and 1990, according to statistics. Around 800,000 returned to Greece after a short or long-term stay in Germany.

"The situation today is much more complex," said Konstantin Dimitriou, chairman of the Association of Greek Communities in Germany.

Dimitriou said that Greece's entry into the European Union had significantly changed the migration patterns of Greeks, making them much more mobile.

Turkish workers in the 1970s in Duisburg, Germany

Thousands of migrant workers poured into Germany in the 1960s and 1970s

"Thousands of temporary Greek migrants came and still come to Germany with their children, work for two or three years, largely in Greek-owned businesses, and then they return home," Dimitriou said. "The Greek schools cater to this mobility. It allows the children of temporary migrant workers to integrate without problems in a Greek school when they return home."

At the same time, many Greek immigrants in Germany are here to stay and have no plans of returning. Dimitriou pointed to the above average number of jobless and professionally unqualified students who complete Greek schools in Germany. On account of their curriculum, the schools aren't geared towards Greek children who live permanently in Germany, Dimitriou said.

Greek schools in need of reform

The view is echoed by Wasilios Fthenakis, a famous Greek educational expert and consultant for several state governments in Germany. Fthenakis said the Greek school system could not be generally written off but underlined that it needed reform.

"We need a program that doesn't stick to the national curriculum of the country of origin but rather one that can meet the specific needs of these children," he said. "That has to include culture and mother tongue but also take account of the demands of the German school system."

Experts say there aren't any easy answers to the dilemma of Greek immigrants.

"Usually, Greek families have high expectations of their children in education," said Dimitriou, who added he would like to send his son to a bilingual Greek-German school.

"The fact that the German educational system is not very open to immigrant children led Greek parents and communities to look for alternatives," he said. "The Greek schools are one, but not the only alternative."

German schools' the best?

Many parents invest a lot of money in tuition and special lessons for their children within the German system, Dimitriou pointed out. The Greek community in Berlin, with the help of the local government, has established two bilingual schools.

For the past 40 years, the Greek community and educational experts have debated the pros and cons of Greek schools in Germany. But the most telling fact is reflected in statistics: They show that 80 percent of all students of Greek origin in Germany attend a German school.

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