Elderly refugees face challenges in German language courses | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 11.04.2017
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Elderly refugees face challenges in German language courses

Refugees in Germany have to attend obligatory German language courses in order to integrate. Learning a foreign language can be challenging for older asylum seekers, who may face difficult health or social circumstances.

Qatneh is a Syrian refugee woman in her fifties, who has been living in the German city of Leipzig for about two years. She came to Germany to be near her children who had already been living in Leipzig. Like all refugees, she is obliged to study German and attend "long and tiring lessons" as she describes them. For an illiterate woman like Qatneh, learning the language and attending classes is especially difficult - the biggest challenge for her being learning to write. She also has to commit daily to attending the lessons and  having to sit in a chair for long hours causes her pain.

"The desire to learn the language is there," says 59-year old Hala, a classmate of Qatneh. The daily lessons on top of her other responsibilities do tire her, however. 

Hala's husband, 66-year old Ali, is attending the same class as his wife and Qatneh. He is very enthusiastic about the courses and follows them with great interest. He sees the German language as being essential  to read the mail he gets or to build relationships in Germany. He stresses that his simple knowledge of German gained from the courses has allowed him to communicate with his local community.

Different ages and abilities

The class's teacher, Malvena Myderitska, calls out to her students in broken Arabic that the lesson is beginning. She explains that one of the problems of the class is that there are people of all ages and that one should take into account the differences in how young and old people learn. Older people are sometimes more forgetful and have health problems that make them absent from class.

"After we started the A2 level we found that the class was struggling, aside from two or three students. I had to discuss with the school's administration to repeat the material from the A1 level, which is the beginner's course," she told DW. "But the situation has improved a lot, and I love my work. I learned some Arabic words while Qatneh has learned how to write German," she adds.

Leipzig, Deutschkurs für Flüchtlinge - Lehmbangruppe Language institute (DW/R. Dawa)

Qatneh, a Syrian refugee, and her teacher Malvina

The Federal Office of Immigration and Refugee (BAMF in Germany) gives free German courses to refugees up to around 1,200 hours, which is enough to reach the intermediate level of B1. But reaching this level within a limited time might not be possible for elderly refugees due to absences from class because of health or family reasons. 

Susan El-Khatib, the administrator of the Lehmbaugruppe school, explains that the having people of all ages in the same class doesn't benefit everyone, because it is noticeable that the elderly sometimes need a different pace in regard the teaching style. Some of them might not be able to learn at the same pace of those in their twenties. "There should be language courses specialized for elderly refugees, but that decision is up to the BAMF office," she says.

Concerns and forgetfulness

Leipzig, Deutschkurs für Flüchtlinge - Lehmbangruppe Language institute (DW/R. Dawa)

Hussein al-Naimat and his class at the Lehmbaugrappe Language Institute

In a neighboring class, Hussein al-Naimat also teaches a group of all ages. He explains that while the refugees do their homework and attend class, learning a new language requires social and psychological effort. For the elderly, health issues may get in the way of learning along with personal or family concerns. But learning the language is important, whether dealing with government letters or finding a place to live. Many refugees are asking how use the language to take advantage of work opportunities.

One the biggest concerns for some of the elderly is memory issues during class. "A short while ago, one of the students in the class asked to record the course with a video camera because he does not remember anything from the lesson when he arrives at home," al-Naimat remembers.

He believes the optional solution would be to reduce class sizes, and to take into account the needs of those with health conditions as well as those coming from war-torn areas. For those suffering from back problems, diabetes and other ailments, they might need to take breaks and walk around during class. Their level of concentration may be affected by these problems. Other students over the age of 50 in the class such as Khalid Daoud and Adnan Hami, agree with this suggestion.

Leipzig, Deutschkurs für Flüchtlinge - Lehmbangruppe Language institute (DW/R. Dawa)

Khaled Daoud, Adnan Hami and Tarek Al-Khaledi, three of the older participants of the German language courses

Tariq al-Khalidi, 50, who arrived in Germany from Iraq after a long and perilous journey, has also found the courses to be difficult.

"It would be better for me to start working and then I can learn German on the job. All I have to think about during these lessons is how to get a job as soon as possible, because it is my source of security in this country.” he says.

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