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German schools prepare for Ukrainian refugee children

March 17, 2022

German schools want to make sure that Ukrainian refugee children do not lose out on education. But, after two years of the coronavirus pandemic, the system is already overstretched.

Ukrainian refugee children at Berlin train station
Half of all Ukrainian refugees arriving in Germany are schoolchildrenImage: Paul Zinken/dpa/picture alliance

Every day, displaced minors arrive at Berlin's central train station after traveling alone all the way from Ukraine.

Volunteers find them standing on a platform after the train has left, silent and motionless, hugging a soft toy. "We find five to seven children like that every day," Barbara Breuer, spokeswoman for the Berlin City Mission told Berlin's Tageszeitung newspaper.

An estimated half of all Ukrainian refugees arriving in Germany are schoolchildren. One day they lived at home and went to school, the next day they'd turned into refugees, their lives having been brutally transformed.

"Authorities in all of Germany's states have discovered that the influx of refugee children is far greater than expected. Now they are looking for schools with free classrooms and teachers who specialize in German as a foreign language," Udo Beckmann, the federal chairman of the VBE education association, told DW.

Ukraine: Children in a war zone

Lacking teachers

But two years of the COVID pandemic have taken their toll on the German education system. Many teachers are exhausted. Even before the pandemic, schools struggled with a shortage of teachers. This has been exacerbated by the spread of the coronavirus, with sick leave among teachers hovering at around 10%. So there is the double challenge that "at the same time we have to take in refugee children in schools with too few staff," says VBE head Beckmann.

Another probably even more difficult challenge lies ahead: Many refugee children are traumatized and likely to require counseling. "They have had to flee [their homeland], an experience that has taken them many hours and days. They probably had to say goodbye to their fathers. They may have witnessed their house being bombed," Anja Bensinger-Stolze of the GEW teachers' union tells DW.

Psychological help 

These experiences could have left children traumatized, which is more than a short-term problem. "That's why they need psychological support, either from school psychologists or from teachers who have had special training," Bensinger-Stolze demands.

Young refugees should be admitted to schools quickly without having to jump bureaucratic hurdles, the experts argue. Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger has suggested hiring Ukrainian teachers among the refugees to work at schools and daycare centers in Germany. This would be a quick solution to alleviate the staffing emergency, the minister stressed.

Evacuating Ukrainian orphans from the war zone

Bringing back retired teachers

However, there is no reliable estimate of how many teachers there are among the refugees and to what extent they would even be employable in Germany on the basis of their qualifications. The president of the German Teachers' Association, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, is skeptical. "This will be no more than a drop in the ocean and not a sustainable solution," he says. He suggests tapping into the "large number of retired teachers who have so far actually refused to step in again, but in view of this humanitarian catastrophe are saying, 'I'd let myself be called to duty.'"

Meidinger sees the care for refugee children as a "national challenge" that cannot be met without financial assistance from the federal government.

In addition, Germany could draw on experience gained during the influx of Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. At that time, special classes were set up to teach students the German language, but also basic facts about Germany. "These basic structures can be reactivated quickly," Udo Beckmann, from the VBE education association, is convinced. Berlin, for example, is planning 50 special "welcome classes" for young people aged 16 and older who have fled the war in Ukraine.

Traumatized children flee war in Ukraine

But there are big questions that remain: How many refugee children will come? Will the Ukrainian refugee families' hopes be fulfilled that their stay will be limited and that they will soon be able to return home?

What is certain is that people in Germany are willing to help. "I have the impression that there is great solidarity. So many people are taking to the streets against the war. Many volunteers are coming to help in a very hands-on way," says GEW education expert Anja Bensinger-Stolze.

"Our heart is wide, but our possibilities are finite," said former German President Joachim Gauck when a million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016. In view of the strained education system, this sentence rings true again today.

This article has been translated from German.

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