The waiting game: Life as a Syrian refugee student in Germany

Scarred by events in their homeland, financially drained, and struggling to learn a new language, Syrian university students in Germany describe the challenges of rebuilding their lives and futures in exile.

Survivors of the events in Syria are today trying to regain control of their lives in their countries of asylum. For many, it’s not only a matter of dealing with what’s yet to come—the practical aspects of academic enrollment or finding employment—but also of finding ways to face what has happened; to absorb and understand it, and overcome it. In Germany alone there are over 700,000 Syrian refugees, more than half of them under the age of 25, according to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). This text explores the challenges that Syrian youth face with higher education in Germany through the stories of Syrian women and men whose studies were interrupted by the revolution and war, and who are now trying to resume their academic trajectories where they left off, or rebuild their lives anew in other ways.

 

How does a Syrian refugee enroll in a German university?

 

All non-Germans hoping to enroll in a German university must fulfill two main requirements: proof of a general higher education entrance qualification (“HZB”) and demonstration of adequate German language skills. Certificates of secondary school education from certain countries are accepted for admission into the German higher education system (after their grades are converted to their equivalent in the German system), without the need to pass further tests. Nationals of other countries have to enroll in a preparatory course (“Studienkolleg”) offered by a number of universities and institutes.

As for the German language proficiency certification process, most universities accept language programs such as DSH, TestDaF, Goethe Institut, and DSD, considered the German-language equivalents of TOEFL and IELTS in English. Certain universities also offer their own German language programs, or accept German language skills at CEFR level C1. Others, particularly institutions specializing in the arts, accept lower levels of language proficiency.

Students then apply for their desired programs and colleges through the “Uni-assist” system, competing with others for the places allotted to non-EU residents, after having their secondary school certificates or previously-completed university courses converted to their equivalents in the German system.

University education at public universities is free for Germans as well as foreigners—students are required only to pay registration fees, which range between €100 and €350 per semester. In practice, most of these fees are recouped in the form of services and discounts (on transportation, for instance) provided to student card holders.

On paper, Syrian students have it better than those from many other countries, as the Syrian secondary school education certificate is eligible for equivalence without further coursework in the case of students with an overall grade above 70%. (The preparatory course is only required for those with grades between 60% and 70%.) In other words, getting into a German university is easy enough for well-off Syrians with good high school grades, who meet the student visa requirements, and are able to cover the costs of living and language instruction.

This, however, is not the case for most Syrians living in Germany today, the vast majority of whom are refugees drained financially as well as emotionally, lacking the support networks supplied by family and friends, which have themselves been wiped out in recent years. Many are heavily in debt, and reliant on the assistance offered through the German government’s social welfare services. Nor is it uncommon for them to have been through the traumas of imprisonment, forced displacement, and lengthy periods of instability, which in turn have disrupted their educational life. The combination of all these factors can make it nearly or actually impossible for otherwise capable Syrian students to see their higher education through to completion.

 

Waiting, interruptions, and obstructions

 

Ayham1 studied medicine at the University of Damascus until the course’s fifth year, when he was arrested for activism against the Bashar al-Assad regime. After his release, he moved to the territories outside regime control, and then on to Turkey. He arrived in Germany in early 2015 as part of a research fellowship at a German institute. When the fellowship ended, he applied for refugee status in Germany. He had to wait a year and a half before acquiring the refugee status documentation that enabled him to register at the job center and receive reimbursement for his German language studies within the refugee integration programs. The job center also covered accommodation expenses and a monthly living stipend, which could be supplemented with part-time work not exceeding €450 per month in wages.

While waiting for his refugee status to be determined, Ayham studied German at a private institute, which cost him around €250, eating away at his already limited and unstable income.

“Generally, the job center encourages you to either attend the language courses offered under the refugee integration program, meaning you only make it to B1, and enter the job market as soon as possible, or to enroll in one of the vocational training programs (‘Ausbildung’), which are paid training contracts at partnering companies or institutions,” said Ayham. “The employment officer responsible for you won’t explicitly prevent you from pursuing language study until your level meets the criteria for university registration. There’s room for negotiation and persuasion to get the office to continue providing assistance during the period of preparation for the language test, but—in principle—it’s preferred that you enter the job market quickly.”

Sham al-Ali2 is enrolled in a journalism program at a university in northern Germany, after having studied Islamic law at the University of Damascus.

“I was encouraged in the beginning to try and enter the job market through the vocational training program, or by getting a training contract at a media outlet,” she said. “But my speedy progress in the language convinced my employment officer to continue supporting me until I reached the language level required for university.”

Ayham managed to meet the level of German proficiency needed for university by enrolling in a language course offered to refugees by the Humboldt University of Berlin as part of its “Integra” and “Welcome” programs. These courses, which most German universities have started offering since 2015, enable enrollees to progress to the level required to take the DSH exam or its equivalents for free. Ayham stressed the importance of these university-offered language courses, saying the level was advanced, and the quality of education far higher for those wishing to pursue university education than the courses offered to the general refugee population under the integration program.

This view was shared by Humam, who left Syria at the end of 2013, after having studied civil engineering at Latakia’s Tishreen University. He arrived to Germany in late 2015 after a short passage through Lebanon followed by two years of residence in Turkey, during which he applied for a student visa to Germany. Humam enrolled in the language course offered by the Technical University of Berlin, where he now plans to complete his engineering studies.

“Perhaps the most difficult thing you have to do is wait, because you have all this financial and emotional pressure, and decisions that you have to make,” said Humam. “You’re obliged to put everything on hold while waiting for approvals, documents, and submission deadlines.”

These waiting periods often mean a discontinuation of aid until the registration process is complete for scholarships or student loans.

Eyas Adi was six years into his medical studies in Syria when events in the country forced him to put them on hold. Now, after a lengthy break, he has arrived in Germany, where he seeks to re-enroll at university after completing his language course. Adi concurs with Humam about the problem of waiting.

“Waiting may be viable for those with well-off relatives who can support them financially for several months, or for those living with their families. Even if their family members are themselves refugees, the aid provided to three people can suffice temporarily to cover the living and housing expenses of a fourth or even fifth person. As for someone living alone, however, without this kind of support, the strain of waiting can lead them to postpone study plans indefinitely, or drop them altogether in order to get a job.”

Adi also points to other difficulties which can in some cases make university impossible, in light of the severe financial strain suffered by a large proportion of young Syrian refugees.

“Getting accepted into a university located in a different city means incurring the expenses of moving and renting a new place and paying a security deposit; something the majority of young Syrians can’t afford. Even if they’ve applied for loans or grants, these aren’t paid immediately after admission, but rather take weeks or longer to be received.”

In the event of approval for a student loan, there is room for negotiation between the job center and the Federal Training Assistance Act (“BAföG”) office to ensure no disruption in income provision during the waiting period. There are also numerous organizations and institutes offering grants and other forms of assistance with passing language exams and overcoming bureaucratic roadblocks and administrative requirements, but getting hold of this assistance requires information and communications skills not easily obtained, as will be seen.

Despite its reputation for bureaucracy, the German system has tried to adapt to the unique circumstances of Syrians, in terms of their obtaining documentation and paperwork. This adaptation was too slow for some to achieve their goals, but others have benefited from the system recognizing the problem, in light of the accumulation of similarly exceptional cases, and taking the steps necessary to remedy it.

 

The German university system and refugees

 

With the steady increase in the number of refugees settling in Germany from 2015 onward, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has allocated a sum of €100 million to set up programs to absorb and integrate refugees wishing to study at university in Germany. A research paper released by the German Academic Exchange Service in the fall of 2017 indicated that the majority of these funds have gone to such programs as “Welcome” and “Integra,” which work with universities to establish language courses enabling enrollees to sit for the language proficiency tests required for university admission. The funds also went to preparatory classes for refugees in need of them, depending on the type of their secondary school certificate and their grades. An agreement was also reached with the organization overseeing the “Uni-assist” program—which puts high school certificates in order and organizes university applications—to give refugees the right to choose three courses each semester free of charge.

The report further stated that the number of beneficiaries from these programs exceeded 6,800 students during 2016, and was expected to exceed 10,000 annually from 2017 on. Nationality-wise, around 75% of the beneficiaries were Syrian, while 6% were Afghan, another 6% Iranian, and 3% Iraqi. As for gender distribution, males made up 81% of beneficiaries overall, a figure that rose to 83% among Syrians specifically.

Many universities also offer a “visiting student” option, which allows refugee students to attend classes of their choosing as a listener, as well as to attend German language courses. The students can even sit for course exams and have their results recognized in their academic records if and when they gain full admission.

Aside from the programs that support the integration of refugees and prepare them for university life in Germany, refugees are also eligible to apply for Federal Training Assistance Act (BAföG) aid. This is an old system, established in 1971, supporting low-income students with monthly installments of up to €735, half of which are government grants, and the other half interest-free loans. Students are obliged to return an amount set at a maximum of €10,000 over an extended period of time after completing their studies.

Anyone under the age of 30 is eligible to receive this financial aid for their first phase of university, while for master’s degrees the age limit is 35. It’s possible, however, to exceed the age limit in exceptional cases if the person can show adequate documentation to the effect that they started their university education before turning 30 and had to drop out for reasons beyond their control. This is yet another procedure to be added to the list of obstacles and waiting times already mentioned. 

Beneficiaries of this assistance may work part-time for an income not exceeding €450 per month, which is vital in well-off areas such as Bavaria, where the cost of renting a room in shared housing alone can amount to two thirds of the aid.

In addition to the BAföG, a number of organizations, political parties, and academic institutions offer their own grants, and some private universities also fund refugees’ studies from their own coffers. Wafa Mustafa, for instance, had studied media for three years at the University of Damascus before her arrest forced her to halt her studies. She arrived in Germany as a refugee after contacting several universities, and gaining acceptance to Bard College in Berlin. She is now studying humanities after receiving a scholarship issued by the university to cover her tuition and living expenses.

 

Advice, information, and expertise

 

“When you get here, you find yourself faced with a lot of choices you can hardly understand, especially given the language barrier,” said Humam. Eyas agreed, adding, “There are information offices inside the universities, and there are volunteers and information desks established as part of the refugee absorption programs, but these are still unable to deal with the complexities of our situation as Syrians. They’re able, perhaps, to explain the relevant legal texts, but their information is generic, and often insufficient to understand the specifics of our different circumstances.”

Sham al-Ali said she benefited greatly from the expertise of the young Syrians who came before her. “Personal acquaintances and pages and groups on social media provide information directly relevant to our situation as Syrian refugees,” she said.

Most of those met during the course of writing this article agreed, with Humam adding, “The most valuable information resource is someone with a similar case to yours who arrived a few months or a year before you, who can give you direct advice in person.”  

Eyas also mentioned the “Life and Study in Germany” group on Facebook as a vital and comprehensive source of information regarding the university admissions process, and the various grants and other forms of assistance available, and the deadlines for applying to them. The group has over 125,000 followers on Facebook, and posts information daily for those looking to pursue higher education in Germany at different levels.

 

***

 

Ayham did not end up enrolling in university in Germany. After obtaining his refugee residence permit, he found an opportunity outside the European Union to study medicine at fourth year level, which was preferable to the alternative in Germany.

Eyas is still working on gaining acceptance into university, though he would now rather turn to psychology or computer science than medicine.

Humam was accepted into an engineering program, and is now looking to find a scholarship, even a partial one, that would allow him to resume his studies with a part-time job.

As for Sham, she is completing her degree in media, her preferred field, in which she had already worked previously as a participant in Al-Jumhuriya’s Fellowship for Young Writers while she was still in Syria. Her participation in this program was accepted as tantamount to a training period by her university, thereby facilitating the acceptance of her application.

For her part, Wafa is finishing off her humanities studies, and has begun thinking about the specialization she wishes to pursue.

Notable in all the interviews conducted for the purpose of this article, and in other discussions elsewhere, is a shift in students’ thinking away from the fields traditionally esteemed by Syrian families—i.e., medicine, engineering, and pharmacy—towards such disciplines as the humanities, social sciences, and history. Perhaps this stems from a desire to understand the self and what has become of it, and to absorb the atrocities that have befallen the Syrian people over the course of recent years. Yet that is another story; one which doesn’t concern Syrian refugees in Germany alone, nor Syrians alone among the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.

 

[Editor’s note: The above is an edited version of a piece first published in English by Orient XXI as part of their “Migrations, a Vanishing Horizon” dossier. It was also published in Arabic by Al-Jumhuriya on 2 May, 2019.]

 
  • 1. A pseudonym.
  • 2. Also a pseudonym.