Integrating Germany through the classroom
By Souad Mekhennet
International Herald Tribune
Published: June 12, 2008
FRANKFURT: The first four years after Sara Tahir moved to Germany, she barely left her home because she could not speak the language.
“I didn't want to take a single step without my husband, even to the gynecologist. He had to go with me and translate,” said the 27 year-old mother, turning red with shame at the memory.
Women like Tahir, an immigrant from Morocco, are one focus of the integration battle in Germany and in the rest of Europe over the Continent's immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries. Unable to speak the language, they find it all but impossible to interact in society. Worse still, their German-born children are more inclined to inherit their isolation, building the walls of what critics call a parallel society.
But now, Tahir speaks German well enough to go shopping alone and takes buses and the subway in Frankfurt by herself. She deals with the government authorities and banks. And she meets with her daughter's teachers at least once a month.
That is because twice a week Tahir packs her German-Arabic dictionary, an exercise book and a notebook in her light brown school bag and goes with her daughter Kawtal to the Albert Schweitzer primary school in the Frankfurter Berg neighborhood, once home to families of American soldiers and still home to large numbers of immigrants.
“She goes to her class and I go to mine,” Tahir said.
Her class is part of a simple language program in the German state of Hesse that has spread to several other German states and has even been adopted nationwide in Austria. Mama Lernt Deutsch, or Mama Learns German, shows that there is no secret to a successful integration program other than a few small steps to accommodate the needs of the students.
The home of the leading German stock exchange and the European Central Bank, Frankfurt is best known as an international business hub, filled with serious Germans in chalk-striped suits driving Porsches. But the city also has a thriving immigrant community. Of the more than 600,000 inhabitants, almost every third person does not hold a German passport, and many of the most isolated are women like Tahir.
“We were brainstorming about how to reach out to these women, discussing the problems and trying to find a solution,” said Marianne Spohner from the Office for Multicultural Affairs in Frankfurt.
Few immigrant mothers were attending language classes, which tended to include both sexes and often took place in the afternoons and early evenings, when the children they had to care for were home.
The formula they came up with was simple, and designed to meet the needs of the mothers. Classes happen during the day when the kids are at school and the mothers have some free time. There is childcare for babies and toddlers.
And, though difficult at first for many Germans to grasp, no men would be allowed in the classes, even as teachers, so as not to offend those with strict Muslim beliefs. Teachers and administrators say that many husbands chaperone their wives to the first few classes to keep an eye out for other men.
“Our objective must be to reach women who live in social isolation and help them to speak German,” said Armin Laschet, the minister responsible for integration in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which supports Mama Lernt Deutsch courses in several communities. “And if we achieve this goal by teaching women and men separately, then that is O.K.”
At 150, or $230, the courses are not cheap. Yet nearly 13,000 women have attended one in the state of Hesse in the 10 years they have been offered.
For all the program's success, the federal government has not chosen to underwrite it nationwide.
“Here we have a very good way to reach out to those that the government wants to integrate, but they don't want to finance it,” says Omid Nouripour, a member of the German Parliament and spokesman for the Migration Working Group of the Green party. “It's a mistake.”
In Frankfurter Berg, north of the city center, where Tahir lives and attends the program, working-class families, many with immigrant backgrounds, pack 1960s-era high-rise apartment buildings. The area has large numbers of people from Eritrea, Sri Lanka and North Africa. Detlef Lack, principal at the Albert Schweitzer school there, said that more than 40 percent of the children came from an immigrant background.
“I had situations where colleagues were angry because mothers did not answer letters or come to meetings,” Lack said, “and I told the teachers, 'You should ask yourself why they are not answering. Maybe they can't.”'
Indeed, Rahwa Weldekidan, an immigrant from Eritrea now attending the class, said she would throw away letters that arrived in German because she could not read them. When her children were older, they would translate for her, Weldekidan said.
Principals and teachers report that the mothers enrolled in the Mama Lernt Deutsch program meet with teachers more often and participate in other school activities more frequently. Most important, teachers also report that children with mothers who attend the course are starting to do much better in school.
The students also go on excursions to museums and historical sites, like the house where Goethe was born in 1749 and even the Dom, Frankfurt's famous cathedral.
Gerlinde Thomala, the teacher of the Mama Lernt Deutsch class at the Schweitzer school, recalled how one Muslim woman's eyes widened inside the Dom and she told her it was the first time she had been inside a church.
Like several of the women, Svjetlana Vucic, an immigrant from Bosnia, said she had had no contact with Germans before meeting her teacher.
“Before I attended this class, I always cried at home and asked myself, 'Why did I come here?”' Vucic said. “Today, I know that there are also friendly Germans.”