When covid-19 descended on Germany and we went into lockdown in March 2020, hybrid teaching proved the most demanding challenge in teaching German to migrants. There are currently more than 1.1 million Ukrainian citizens living in Germany who have applied for asylum since 24th February 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine [1]. About 350,000 of these are young people under the age of 18. About two-thirds of adult refugees from Ukraine are women. Therefore, the Ukrainian refugee crisis is a profoundly gendered crisis calling for gendered responses. This mass movement of those displaced in a country ravaged by war have led to challenges made on teachers that pales even hybrid teaching.

@ Kieran Crossley-Holland CC BY-NC

Equipping refugees with language skills, integrating into the local cultures, coming to terms with the bureaucracy and the validation process of qualifications from Ukraine and coping with psychological trauma after fleeing their country are some of the broad challenges Ukrainian refugees face in Germany. I can relate to this as my wife Maryana is Ukrainian.

Integration courses are offered in Germany by over 1,300 local language schools and they are funded by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). These language courses range from integration courses as well as vocational courses.

The classroom environment has provided refugees with a fixed point of stability in their everyday lives. Whilst Russian-speaking refugees form the backbone of participants, so it is there are also speakers whose native language is Ukrainian.

Breaks in language classes are used to connect on social media with other family members and friends. Very often class members are shown to be using phones to find out the latest news in Ukraine. At various times over the last few months in different classes, panic attacks caused by loud noises, a phone call to break bad news on the front, course terminations due to nervous problems and trauma displayed by course members have all played a role.  With all this in mind, resilience, being a good listener and understanding the needs of those course members whose lives have been upended while providing language skills are some of the ingredients of what is required to teach German as a foreign language competently and effectively. The words a teacher, a mentor and in some case a friend spring to mind.

All-too-often I am confronted with the following situation: Where is the motivation for refugees to learn at a time when heart, body and soul are far away? It is hard to expect a person to learn a foreign language at a time when their life has been turned upside down. Therefore, there are sometimes motivation issues. A class excursion or a breakfast can help to provide more cohesion among course members.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states:

“High levels of uncertainty can deter refugees from making country-specific investments in host societies, such as learning a language, and integration due to the potentially temporary nature of their stay.”

My impression is split between those who are motivated to acquire language competencies quickly, and those who play on time and hope that they can return home as soon as possible. Given that the majority of course members come from Russian-occupied areas in Donbas and southern Ukraine, this seems increasingly unlikely.

Meanwhile, the German government has made an important decision regrading refugees from Ukraine, extending their temporary protection. Their residence permits will remain valid until 4th March 2025 as reported by the German Ministry of the Interior. Therefore, protection is guaranteed whilst also permitting access to education and the employment market. (BAMF Ukrainian refugees: Nearly half intend to stay in Germany in the longer term, accessed on 02.01.2024).

In summary, integration is impacted by care burdens, the risk of exploitation and the uncertainty about the length of residence and breakdown of family units. The complexities around the Anerkennungsverfahren (validation procedure) of foreign qualifications need to be further simplified to allow for a fast-track entrance to the employment market. However, it is the acquisition of the core German language skills and passing the accompanying language level tests that will facilitate this entrance and partly compensate for the current lack of skilled workers, the so-called Fachkräftemangel on the job market. And it is the financial assistance which Ukrainians receive with free language courses and state social funds towards housing, groceries and transportation which provide the necessary support to make this happen.

[1] Statista Research Department 20.12.2023

Posted by Written by Kieran Crossley-Holland, 3rd January 2024

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