The Teacher from Syria

The Sigmund-Jähn Elementary School in Fürstenwalde (Brandenburg, Germany) used to be notoriously bad. Then several refugee children came along – and a teacher from Syria. Today, the school is considered exemplary. Yet, not all parents are happy about this. A story about the integration of refugees, and about why people support right wing parties.

By Björn Stephan

It was the war that swept her to this unlikely place, a forgotten school in an ailing working-class district in east Germany. From the moment she arrived, she often wondered about the Germans. The Germans, she says, have faces like lions, blonde and proud. The Germans have pale skin and love tattoos. They give their children strange names like Jason-Lee or Kimberley-Sun. They are always on time, but never have time. And they celebrate Carnival.

It's an icy, cloudless Tuesday in February when Hend Alkhabbaz, a small and proud woman from Syria, stands in a gym in Brandenburg. Around her are 200 children from first to fourth grade, frolicking around to German folk music. Alkhabbaz, 34, her dark hair streaked with grey, fled to Germany mid-2015 and started teaching in October 2017. Until now she has never celebrated Carnival. She only knows that she has to dress up, so she dons a black mask studded with rhinestones. Her gaze goes around the gym: knights, cowboys, and a huge strawberry. The strawberry is the deputy school principal, scolding Batman for throwing a ball at Snow White’s head.

There is much in this country she does not understand.

Then a fairy reaches for Alkhabbaz's hands while Bob Marley, the music teacher with fake dreadlocks, puts on a new song: Die Immer Lacht (“She Who’s Always Laughing”). Alkhabbaz laughs and teeters. She has decided to like Germany, because she needs Germany just as much as Germany needs her. But do the Germans realize that as well?

Deprived school

Ines Tesch remembers exactly how she stood in front of the Sigmund Jähn Elementary School for the first time, now almost three years ago. She had applied to the post of headmistress of a "deprived school," as the advert euphemistically phrased it. As someone who had worked in the Berlin districts of Marzahn and Neukölln, she thought it was ridiculous: a ‘deprived school’ in a small town of 30,000 inhabitants?

So she drove from Berlin to Fürstenwalde, past the affluent southern part of the city, with its neatly fenced-off gardens, and past the renovated old town with its cathedral and marketplace. It didn’t look bad at all.

She then veered towards the northern side of town, to the Kosmonauten-district, where the streets are all named after space travelers: Gagarin, the first man in space, or Kamarow, the first to die in space. To Ines, it seemed like she landed on a different planet. From the window of her car, she looked at dilapidated tower blocks with balconies clad in corrugated iron. At the end of the street lays a withered log, on which someone had drawn a long, bleached-out rainbow. Tesch, who up until that moment had believed that nothing could scare her, thought: Oh my God.

Two-and-a-half years later, one day after Carnival, Tesch sits at her desk, which she painted in shades of apricot and vanilla. She is a 49-year-old woman, bursting with confidence. Tesch says she had found a school known  as a ‘rough’ school in Fürstenwalde. With room for up to 450 children from first to sixth grade, the actual number of pupils has been shrinking for years, as no one from the affluent southern neighborhoods would even consider sending their kids there. Only 200 are left: most came from the Kosmonauten-district, mostly German, with some Eastern European repatriates; 70% relies on social security. Among them, some had never heard of either Snow White or Red Riding Hood, and some would come to school in winter without a coat, proudly proclaiming they had spent the entire holiday watching TV with their moms.

The kids were taught by 14 teachers, all of them trained in the time of the Eastern German Republic (GDR or DDR) and all well over 50 years old – some of them didn’t even  have an email-address. Tesch says: “I had the feeling it was politically minded to let this school die. In the south, school investments run in the millions, but here we see none of that.”

The walls were yellow, the furniture was from DDR-times, and the local library still contained classic works of Social Realism such as Nicolai Ostrowski’s ‘How the Steel Was Tempered’. Tesch went to the mayor to tell him that it could not go on like this any longer. The mayor told her, “I can’t do anything about it either.” But to her ears it sounded like: I don’t want to.

So Tesch got some buckets of paint and convinced parents to help repaint the classroom walls on the weekend. They tore out the linoleum, disposed of four containers of furniture and drove 600 kilos of books to the second-hand book collection point. Then something happened, something unforeseen. In the waning summer of 2015, as tens of thousands of Syrians set out for Germany, Tesch found new students on her doorstep every morning. They were shy and didn’t speak a word of German, just like their parents.

Fürstenwalde has four elementary schools. The one in the south is about 200 meters from a refugee center. Yet all the refugee children were sent to the Sigmund-Jähn Elementary School, a 45-minute bus ride away. The other schools were full, they said.

In the class pictures hung around the corridors, one can see how the school has changed. The percentage of children with non-German heritage has increased from 14 to 44 per cent.

Tesch welcomed 150 new students, most of them Syrian. Children that hid under tables when a storm caused the windows to rattle, whose eyes flickered with fear every time the fire alarm rang, or cried when the teacher gave them a note meant for their parents when their father or mother had died. She struggled to console them. They could only express themselves with gestures or via Google Translate. As a result, she found herself with a new problem: where to find a teacher who could speak Arabic?

“Ich liebe dich” and “Arschloch“ were the only German words Hend Alkhabbaz could say when she arrived in Germany, in September 2015, after being on the run for 18 days: Beirut, Izmir, a boat to Greece, and then taking the Balkan-route to Berlin – on foot. Alkhabbaz is now sitting in a classroom on the second floor, across from two girls. Yasmin and Hebba are both eleven years old, but only going into third grade, because they have been living in Germany for just one and a half years.

“So, sweeties, where did we finish last time?” Alkhabbaz asks while the girls leaf through their workbooks. Yasmin says something to Hebba, in Arabic. Alkhabbaz shakes her head: “We are speaking German.” It’s a Thursday, two days after Carnival, in the second period. The course: German as a second language.

Both girls tentatively start to read, as if the words might burn their tongue.

Yasmin: “We drove to the forest!”

Hebba: “That’s cool! Did you see a deer?

Yasmin: “No we didn’t... Deer are…” She halts.

“Shy”, Alkhabbaz says. “Do you know what that means?”

The girls shrug.

Alkhabbaz says: “Shy is when you’re… afraid. No, wait. Not afraid.” She explains it in Arabic. “Ah okay!” Yasmin says.

“The teacher has a tool – language. I’m insecure, and the kids notice that. It’s stressful and embarrassing”

After one hour Alkhabbaz puts the chairs up. She looks exhausted. “They still don’t understand enough. It was the same for me. It is the same for me.”

Even though she now rarely strays when it comes to German grammar, it drives her up to the wall when she misconjugates a verb, slips in the wrong article, or when she calls a boy “meine Liebe” (my love), making the children smirk. “The teacher has a tool – language. I’m insecure, and the kids notice that. It’s stressful and embarrassing.”

Occasionally it seems that Alkhabbaz has forgotten that she started learning this language just over two years ago at the refugee home in Fürstenwalde where she had landed, though she had wanted to come to Berlin.

She had shared a cramped room with a Russian woman who barely spoke to her, with cockroaches crawling across the walls and scrubby pine trees swaying in the wind outside her window. To Alkhabbaz, Fürstenwalde seemed small and grey – after six pm, the streets were abandoned, and all shops were closed.

She thought of her father Khaled, a math teacher. She missed him the most, the smell of his perfume, his kindness. Alkhabbaz remembered how he had warned her at their home in Homs: Germany is a cesspool. ‘They drink on the street, they have sex everywhere. Be careful!’ Alkhabbaz had predicted that that wasn’t true. She had imagined Germany like the America she knew from movies, large houses, big cars. Now, in her tiny room, with a German workbook for asylum seekers in front of her, she wished her father had at least been a little bit right.

Languages had always come easy to her. In Homs, she studied English literature and read a lot of Brontë and Hesse, in English and Arabic. Then she worked as a teacher and taught English in an elementary school. Now she learned German: numbers, time of day, and how to introduce herself: "Hallo, ich bin Hend, ich wohne in Fürstenwalde." (Hi, I’m Hend, I live in Fürstenwalde).

Peter Schwickert taught Alkhabbaz's first German course. For thirty years he has taught German to asylanten – as he calls them – Russians, Arabs, Africans, "but I've never had a student as clever and diligent as Hend."

After only a few weeks, he appointed her as assistant teacher: he taught in English, she translated into Arabic. He offered to address her with the informal ‘du’ (you), but Alkhabbaz continued to say "Mr. Schwickert." He taught Alkhabbaz to ride a bicycle and showed her a Fürstenwalde that to Alkhabbaz now seemed a lot less small. He accompanied her to the immigration office and the job center and helped her out with filling out forms. He reminded her of her father.

Then he read in the newspaper about a project at the University of Potsdam: the ‘Refugee Teachers Program’ for refugees who had studied and taught in their home countries. They would be trained for a year and a half to be able to teach at German schools. This was a program meant to aid integration and combat the lack of teachers.

Alkhabbaz said, "What am I supposed to do? I couldn’t do that!" She had imagined herself as a waitress, maybe even in Berlin. But a teacher? After lots of contemplation, she finally applied. And Mr. Schwickert was right – 700 refugees had applied to the program, and Alkhabbaz was one of fifty who got a place.

The job center initially refused to pay for the tickets, which cost 130 Euros each month

From then on, she travelled every day from the refugee home to Potsdam, one and a half hours by train on the way there and one and a half hours coming back. The job center initially refused to pay for the tickets, which cost 130 Euros each month. She paid for them out of her own pocket, even though she only received 350 Euros through her social security benefits (Hartz IV).

At the university, Alkhabbaz enrolled in an intensive German language course. She learned about the second subjunctive, what a participial attribute was, and mastered the passive tense in conjunction with modal verbs. She read and wrote texts on topics such as "ready meals: how to get the stew into the tin?" Sometimes the words towered above her as an indomitable creature.

Eventually, she had to do an internship. Schwickert suggested she should go to the Goßmann School, in the south. But then Ines Tesch called.

The school that Alkhabbaz encountered didn’t look anything like the school Tesch found when she just arrived: now, the classrooms had been painted, the library had received new books, and in the hallways, banners were draped showing "welcome" in twelve different languages. A new pedagogical counsellor helped students with special needs and the school staff had increased to 21 teachers. Outside, craftsmen were renovating the school façade after the mayor had come around to provide the necessary funds. One-third of students were refugees.

After a tour, Schwickert, Alkhabbaz and Tesch sat down in the school principal’s office. It was the first time, Tesch said, that she experienced students being sad when the holidays begin. She raved about the refugee students, their curiosity and how they had rekindled the zeal of some of the teachers.

But she also talked about Syrian girls whose parents forbade them to attend swimming or sex education classes, and Syrian boys who start brawling the moment someone offended their mother. She said, "Ms. Alkhabbaz, please join us."

Schwickert replied: "We decide where Hend goes." But Alkhabbaz tugged at his sleeve and made it clear to him that it was her choice and hers alone. She felt she was needed here. Little did she know that her arrival wouldn’t go down well with everybody.


It is Friday, three days after Carnival, when Alkhabbaz is sitting in the teacher's room, in front of a tupperware of salad. She’s about to go to her English class. When the P.E. teacher enters the room, Alkhabbaz asks, "So, how was class?" He looks startled. "Yeah, all good.” From the start of her internship, her colleagues had seemed so distant and serious to Alkhabbaz. They were always stressed, always had to work. And to make matters worse, they spoke in a thick Brandenburg drawl.

Her students could understand Alkhabbaz without issue. Yet when colleagues in the teacher's room talked about Hertha BSC or next day's hike, she barely understood. She had the impression no one seemed to care about that either.

Once, Alkhabbaz offered her help to a teacher, to which the teacher replied she did not need help, she could do it all by herself. Alkhabbaz wondered if it had something to do with her, and her coming from Syria.

The lessons were also taught much differently from what she was used to in Syria. She had taken pedagogy seminars at Potsdam University where she learned that the Germans do not distribute grades from one to ten. Yet no one had told her the students would be so callous as to blurt out: “I don’t feel like it” or even ape her if she stumbled over her words. And how would she have to know that parents in Germany, no matter the trouble their kids caused, persist in blaming the teachers?

Alkhabbaz had felt like a fool. When she got home in the evening, in the small apartment that Mr. Schwickert had provided her, she felt lonely. She missed her home country, her language, her family, her friends scattered all over the world. There was an emptiness inside her that swallowed everything.

She says: "My life didn’t feel real. I ate food, but it didn’t satisfy my hunger. At parties I danced, but I wasn’t happy. I had won, but it felt like I’d lost." Sometimes, after class, she locked herself in the classroom and cried.

She would probably have thrown in the towel had it not been for a colleague of hers, Solveig Reichardt. Reichardt was also new to the school. She had never taught classes with such a gap in levels across students: some were native speakers, the other spoke only a little German, some not at all. She had been glad when Tesch invited Alkhabbaz by her side.

Alkhabbaz practiced reading with the Syrian children. She talked to them when they had a stomachache and told Reichardt whenever the children were ridiculing her in Arabic. She translated parent-teacher conversations and explained to the parents what folders and pens they should buy for their children. In return, Reichardt taught Alkhabbaz how important it is for children to learn how to work in groups, and that a teacher is allowed to put an arm around a student’s shoulder.

Ines Tesch saw Alkhabbaz's progress. She was still worried. She feared that Alkhabbaz would overburden herself. What she did not realize was that Alkhabbaz had to overburden herself and that she couldn’t do it any other way. She needed three days, and not three hours, to prepare a worksheet.

When her internship was over in September 2017, Alkhabbaz completed the program in Potsdam as one of the 13 final participants. All the others had either given up or failed the German language exam. Tesch offered her a job as a teacher of English and German as a second language, which Alkhabbaz gratefully accepted.

She got something that many refugees never get: a chance. A residence permit until January 2019, and a job – something only a quarter of all refugees that came to Germany from war-torn countries since 2015 have. She earned just shy of 2000 euros, net salary.

At this point the story could end. As a story of success that only few refugees could write. Partly because they are not as educated as Alkhabbaz, but also because they had had no Schwickert, no Reichardt, no Tesch to guide them.

They had all been proud. When a local newspaper had reported on Alkhabbaz, Tesch shared a post showing her excitement on Facebook, where she had set up a page for the school. Underneath, one father commented: "The [political] parties should start taking care of the German people. When teachers start wearing headscarves, my children will stay home."

Tesch had not expected that. She knew the father – but he had never told her anything like that. She looked at his profile to see what other stuff he posted: "One thing the refugee crisis has clearly shown us, is that there has always been enough money for the poorest in here!!!"

Tesch had noticed that at the beginning of the school year, only twelve new applications had come in. She had also noticed the concern some parents had that the presence of refugee children could influence the performance of their children, and she had heard German children speak of the refugees as "fucking foreigners." A boy in first grade had said, "It’s all [Angela] Merkel’s fault that all these kanaken [derogatory term originally meant to connote immigrants of Italian descent] are here with us."

Tesch says: "We have lost the reputation of being a ‘deprived school,’ yet now we are seen as the foreigners’ school." Unsettling, yet undoubtedly even worse in a town like Fürstenwalde, where the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany won 22.8 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary election.

It’s a Monday, six days after Carnival, when Dieter Kleppe brings his daughter Alisha to school, as he does every morning. It’s not really necessary – they live opposite the school and Alisha is twelve, but Kleppe is a caring father. He likes to make his daughter's breakfast every morning, cornflakes and a cherry-banana smoothie, and he enjoys bringing her to school. When they arrive in front of the school, Kleppe takes her backpack off her shoulders. "Have a nice day, Lischi,” to which Alisha nods with an indifference typical for teenagers.

Kleppe waits until she disappears through the front door, then looks at his watch. They’re on time as always. "Those asylum seekers are usually late."

Then he jumps on his bike and cycles to the Christophorus workshop, a facility for the disabled where he works as a caretaker, through the Federal volunteer service. Kleppe, a skilled plastics and elastics specialist, is 53 years old and he is the father that posted the comment on Facebook.

At 2 p.m. Kleppe comes home. Alisha, named after a character in the TV series Misfits that her mother always watched, is still in school. The two have been living here for nine years – ever since Kleppe lost his job at the Pneumant tyre factories and his relationship with Alisha's mother ended. Their apartment measures 67 m2, four rooms with balconies, a hatch kitchen, and a bathroom without windows. Kleppe says it was called "Plattenbautyp 2" [Apartment block type 2] during the GDR-era.

Lawyers and doctors used to live in these apartments, the intelligentsia of the workers’ and farmers’ state. After the fall of the wall, however, those who could afford it moved to Fürstenwald's southern edge and built family houses there. Over time, the Kosmonauten-district deteriorated, and Kleppe, who was raised in the south side of town, moved there. At 436 Euros a month, the rent was cheap and the school was next door. He was involved in finding sponsors for the school and never missed a school event.

"Then the asylum seekers arrived," says Kleppe. They live below him on the second floor, he says, and above on the fifth as well. He makes it sound like they've surrounded him.

Refugee thing

When the "refugee thing" started, he says, he had brought clothes to the Red Cross. The staff there reportedly told him that if he did not have any branded clothes, he could keep them. He was outraged. A little later, his housing company messaged him: a Syrian family needed a four-room apartment; wouldn’t two rooms be sufficient for him and his daughter?

He gazes around his living room. The blue carpet is dirty and smeared with coffee stains. The cabinet was bought for 40 Euros from the Red Cross. The TV and laptop came later, when he signed his phone contract.

Kleppe lives on social security, in Germany known as Hartz IV. On top of that, he earns a hundred euros with his work for the Federal volunteer service. There is no money left for the horse riding classes that Alisha wanted so much. Instead, they take trips to the local zoo. Yet, when Kleppe noticed what his new neighbors were receiving, he turned green with envy. "Caritas gave those downstairs brand new furniture, and the ones at the front got a fitted kitchen!" Ever since, Kleppe has been envious when it comes to who gets what in Fürstenwalde. At football club FSV Union Fürstenwalde, Syrians do not have to pay a membership fee, he claims. And they pay nothing on Children's Day in the youth club for the cake. "The asylum seekers get everything for free, they all carry the latest mobile phones in their pockets, but I can only buy my daughter a second-hand one."

Poverty has subdued Kleppe. It makes him angry. What Kleppe does not realize, though, is that there are some politicians who are stirring up unrest. Politicians that try to direct their anger towards refugees, as if they were responsible for Kleppe’s poverty. Kleppe was poor long before the refugees arrived. But Kleppe doesn’t see that. To him, it feels like the Syrians want to take something from him that was his, and his alone.

As Alisha comes home, she goes straight to her room with a friend. A note is attached to the door: "Do not come in". Kleppe opens the door, the two are sitting on the floor and they are both on their cell phones.

"Alisha, will you do your homework now, please?" says Kleppe. "Yes, Dieter," says Alisha as she reluctantly opens her notebook. As Kleppe walks back into the living room, Alisha says, "I hate homework," and grabs her phone again. She says she likes Minecraft and art because she only gets A’s in those. She says she doesn’t like German and math, because she gets only C’s, and she doesn’t like the teddy bear wallpaper in her room as it's for babies. Papa has promised to put up new wallpaper in the room, she says, so she already tore off some of it. But right now there is no money. Most of all, she says, she loves Japanese anime. Alisha digs out a piece of paper from her make-up box, on which she has written the Japanese alphabet and some words. She already knows "excuse me" and "I love you."

When asked about the Syrian students in her class, Alisha says, "I don’t really care." Then she says that she’s part of a WhatsApp group of her class with only German students. She says, "It’s not a German school anymore, they came here because of stupid wars, I want every child to be in their own country. Otherwise you don’t have to travel anywhere anymore, because everybody's here."

Kleppe says he knows that there are a lot more parents at school who think like him, but just do not dare to admit that publicly

Alisha and her father have never gone on holiday together. She says her biggest wish is to one day go to Japan, or at least to the Baltic Sea. Alisha says what her father says. And Kleppe says what he thinks.

In this, he is not alone. He knows that because of the likes he gets on Facebook. Kleppe says he knows that there are a lot more parents at school who think like him, but just do not dare to admit that publicly, because they would be labelled as Nazis, just like he was after his Facebook post about the Syrian teacher.

Personally, he says, he has nothing against her. But since Alisha once had her as a substitute, he knows she talks funny. Kleppe says: "This is a German school, everyone has to speak German."

Hend Alkhabbaz lives two kilometers away from the Kosmonauten-district and Kleppe, in the center of Fürstenwalde. Her apartment is located in an old building and has three rooms, 49 square meters in total. The decoration is typically German: there’s a cabinet against the wall, laminate, a dining table -- everything looks very tidy. The walls are covered with photos of her family and friends.

After a long day at the school, Alkhabbaz sits on the corner sofa of her living room. She might have met Dieter Kleppe before, she says, but she has never spoken to him. His kind of opinion is nevertheless familiar to her – she reads the articles that Mr. Schwickert cuts out of the newspaper. She knows what many Germans think about refugees.

She says she has never experienced any kind of hostility towards her in Germany. Yet, sometimes she feels the distrust of people: when she buys something at the supermarket and the cashiers inspect her with a gaze as if she were a thief. Or when she takes the bus and people can’t stop staring at her new winter jacket, which she bought with her first salary. Alkhabbaz says she finds it uncomfortable, but not strange.

She can understand the envy and fear of the people towards strangers - that is no different in Syria - but what she doesn’t understand is when politicians use fear and envy to incite hatred, or how they are stirring up the poor against refugees.

Then Alkhabbaz gets even quieter. She says Germany is treating her well, she has an apartment, a job, friends. She no longer has to fear for her life. In Syria there was war, and the bombs that destroyed her home. "I felt like I could die any moment."

Nevertheless, she longs for her homeland. She shares this longing with Dieter Kleppe: both wish for a country that no longer exists. "Syria is no longer my country," says Alkhabbaz. She does not want to go back to the Syria that has now emerged. Almost all Syrian parents at school feel the same way, she says.

Most of what Alkhabbaz reads in the news is about deportations, migration restrictions or the suspension of family reunification. As if it’s possible to rewind time and just get rid of the 1.4 million people who have applied for asylum since 2015. Yet it’s only on rare occasions that another question arises: how can integration succeed?

Alkhabbaz has a hard time understanding that. She herself has proven that it works. She’s adapted and ready to do something for the country that offered her shelter and a future.

Peter Schwickert says: "She's a gift to Germany."

Solveig Reichardt says, "She's our stroke of good luck."

Ines Tesch says, "I'm very happy she's here."

Although Tesch would not yet entrust her with her own class, Alkhabbaz is sure that one day she will. She believes that her efforts are worth her while. Just as the efforts made for the school have been rewarded.

The city council has decided that all parents living in the north-east of Fürstenwald are obliged to send their children to the Sigmund-Jähn Elementary School. Tesch has already received 58 applications.

Das ist super!

On Tuesday, seven days after Carnival, Hend Alkhabbaz walks into a room on the ground floor of the school. She is late. Ines Tesch has invited all parents with a migration background to the parents' evening. Alkhabbaz is supposed to translate. She positions herself in front of Tesch. There are fifty parents in the room – almost all men have taken a seat to her left, and all women –  many with headscarves –  on her right.

Dim light shines through the narrow windows on the side of the room as Ines Tesch greets the parents. "Merhaba," she says, welcome. One father corrects her pronunciation, Tesch’s cheeks turn slightly red.

She also wanted to address some points of improvement this evening, to ensure that parents check their children's homework and call the school in case of illness. But first she wants to give praise. "There are people who say we are a foreigners’ school. I say that we’re proud, because we have amazing children from twelve nations. We have awarded 24 children with the best half-year grades, eleven of which are of non-German origin. Das ist super!"

As Alkhabbaz translates, four girls are walking past the windows outside. They stop to look into the room, at the women with the headscarves and the men with the thick beards. When Alkhabbaz is finished translating, the parents start applauding. From outside, one of the girls shouts "Foreigners out!" Then they run away.

Photo: Zahra, a teacher from Syria, now working in a UNICEF/Mercy Corps Makani ("MySpace") centre for young children in the Azraq refugee camp, northern Jordan. – © Russell Watkins / DFID / Flickr

Süddeutsche Zeitung, published in Munich, Bavaria, is one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany.

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