From the Pub to the Lecture Hall
It all began as a misunderstanding. Last year, a couple from Karlsruhe mistook a refugee accommodation in Unterleiterbach/Zapfendorf for a local pub. Despite language difficulties, the young refugees realised that their guests had expected to be able to order food and served them a traditional Syrian meal. Now, the University of Bamberg is offering a language course for the refugees housed in Zapfendorf.
Rajab Ahmadli concentrates on the whiteboard as he slowly writes the letters S-t-ü-h-l-e, the German word for “chairs”. Petra Avram, the course instructor, nods approvingly. The 40-year-old Azerbaijani and the other participants in the refugee language course have done their homework and are all actively engaged in the lesson. Despite their dedication, communication is difficult and hand gestures are a common aid. When that doesn’t help the more advanced students do their best to translate into Arabic or Russian. The one thing that all participants have in common is that none of them speak English.
In their home countries of Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Azerbaijan, Rajab Ahmadli and his fellow students earned their daily bread and wages without foreign language skills, most of them as craftspeople, builders or technicians. Rajab’s wife Kursum Achadova is the sole participant to have attended university and she later taught geography in a secondary school. But the time came when she and her fellow students were forced to flee: from wars, political repression, a life lived in fear.
“We wanted to respond to their help with help of our own”
University of Bamberg President Dr. Godehard Ruppert got the idea for a language course for the refugees in Zapfendorf after hearing the story of their remarkable hospitality. In spite of language difficulties and without further ado, they played the host to the unexpected retired couple from Karlsruhe who had mistaken their accommodation for a pub. “We wanted to respond to that help with help of our own,” says Ruppert. “The university has always been involved in the community here in Bamberg and the region, and so in this case there was no question that we would act on our social responsibility.” Last autumn, the university organised its first language course for 25 capable asylum seekers in Bamberg.
Since the 8th of February, Rajab Ahmandli and Kursum Achadova have spent four hours a day in one of two four-week courses for a total of 25 students with various language proficiency levels. Their bus fare to and from Bamberg is covered by the university. The Azerbaijani couple is particularly grateful for the change of scenery that attending the course affords them: “In our accommodation in Unterleiterbach, we deal almost exclusively with other refugees. There’s not really any opportunity to get to know the region and talk with the local people. We are so glad that this university course is available and we’re very grateful to the president.”
Petra Avram, who runs one of the two courses, sees her work as a unique challenge – and not only because of the limited means of communication. The heterogeneous makeup of the course groups means that participants ranging from 18 to 46 years old, some with and some without school or vocational education are all starting from zero to learn a new foreign language together. “While we are helping some participants take their first steps towards literacy, with others we are primarily concerned with teaching them, at a basic level, what it means to learn a language. Only very few participants already possess the skills required to simply start with new language acquisition.
Intercultural learning as a course cornerstone
Without language skills, refugees have almost no opportunity to become acquainted with the customs and conventions in their host country. In order to break this vicious cycle, the course also includes cultural activities like a visit to the traditional open-air market or to the natural history museum. “We want to include the course participants in everyday life here in Bamberg,” explains Christine Drakew, course organiser from the University Language Centre. “For this reason, even the lesson material is full of references to Bamberg and the Franconian region.” Additionally, the course includes a lesson module on interculturalism meant to sensitise participants to cultural differences.
University Vice-president Dr. Sebastian Kempgen, who coordinates activities for refugees at the university, adds that “this concept of intercultural learning is particularly well suited to providing people with a better understanding of the region in which they live. This means that they can begin to feel at home.” And this concept has already begun to bear fruit. As Rajab Ahmadli and Kursum Achadova can confirm, “Bamberg is really beautiful, and we particularly like the river. We would like to stay.” But even more than a permanent residence here in Bamberg, the 36-year-old teacher would like to begin university studies in geography so that she has the necessary qualifications to pursue her old occupation here in Germany. “We are truly grateful to Germany for taking us in, and now we’d like to give something back.”
This press release was translated by Benjamin Wilson.