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POTSDAM, Germany – A German university has launched a program aimed at enabling teachers who fled Syria and other countries to return to the classroom, potentially helping them serve as bridge-builders between German schools and last year's many new arrivals.
The project at the University of Potsdam, just outside Berlin, started this week as Germany increasingly focuses on integrating what will likely be hundreds of thousands of people into society and the work force.
On Thursday, the first, all-Syrian group of refugees grappled with the intricacies of German time-telling and days of the week at the modern university campus on the city's outskirts.
The 11-month course to familiarize them with the language and Germany's education system starts with several months of intensive German courses. From September onward, they will take part in regular teacher training and learn about teaching in Germany, ending with practice at a school.
"I was very happy that there is a course specifically for refugees who are teachers — that's what I want," said Alaa Kassab, a 23-year-old from Aleppo, who taught English and other subjects to young children in Syria. "I wanted something to help me figure out how I will be a teacher here in a Germany."
Fellow participant Yaser Rifai, a 40-year-old from Homs, said he's working "in two directions: teach people and study (for a) PhD" in information technology.
Mirjam Vock, a professor of education at the university who helped initiate the program, said she and others launched it after realizing that "there is no offer, no program in Germany for this group of highly qualified people."
Vock said the university distributed a flyer to refugee homes in Potsdam. Word of the project quickly got around; Kassab and Rifai said they heard about it via the Internet.
The university received more than 700 applications, but had only 25 places on its first course. Choosing the participants "was incredibly difficult, because you can read incredible motivation in every application," Vock said.
The university plans to start two more courses during the summer semester, taking the total to as many as 70. It hopes to add more in the fall, and for other universities to follow its example.
Vock said it remains to be seen what jobs her students may get after their course, but they could ultimately teach migrant children or even regular German classes if they learn the language well enough.
She said that, since they share refugee children's cultural and linguistic background, they "could have an important function as go-betweens, as bridge-builders between parents, children and German teachers."
"Maybe we can help the German teachers communicate with the kids, and find their problems, and explain more about the teaching system back in Syria," said Kassab.
Several hundred thousand children were among the nearly 1.1 million people registered as asylum-seekers in Germany last year. While by no means all those people will be allowed to stay, many from Syria and Iraq in particular will.
Germany is still in the early days of training new arrivals and figuring out how their abilities and qualifications match with the needs of Europe's biggest economy.
It's putting a heavy emphasis on learning the German language, and also is moving to ease access to the labor market.
A package agreed by the governing parties Thursday foresees creating 100,000 government-funded "job opportunities" for asylum-seekers who are likely to stay, and the suspension for three years of a rule that asylum-seekers are initially excluded from jobs unless no German or EU citizen can fill them.