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Refugee students

New beginnings at LMU

München, 01/18/2016

Samar was working on her thesis when her house in Damascus was hit by a bomb. Ahmad Al-Nabulsi was at dental school when he was imprisoned for joining a protest against the government. Both are now starting over again at LMU.

Ahmad is studying Biology on LMU’s campus in Martinsried. Fellow-student Charlotte is helping him through his first semester.

Microbiology, Chemistry, Human Genetics. Ahmad Al-Nabulsi counts off his list of subjects. It’s mid-morning on a Friday, and the lecture in Microbiology I has just ended. This morning, as every morning, he was up by 5 o’clock, and has made the journey to LMU from the refugees’ hostel in Moosburg. Later today he has a language course to attend, and it will be late in the evening before he gets back. “Of course it’s a hassle, but it’s better than just sitting around doing nothing,” he says, with a wry laugh.

No one would guess from his expression and demeanor that Ahmad is one of the multitudes of people who have fled one of the most bitterly fought civil wars of modern times. He comes from Dara’a, a city in the extreme south of Syria, where the first protests against the Assad regime erupted in 2011. He pulls out his smartphone and shows me photographs of his home town: The first is dominated by ruined houses, the next shows dead bodies, laid out in a row. No less than 18 of his 20 closest acquaintances have lost their lives since the conflict began, he says. Most of them were killed, the rest died in jail. Ahmad himself spent three months in prison, because he had taken part in protests against the government led by Syrian president Bashir Assad.

When the war broke out, Ahmad was studying in Aleppo. He wanted to become a dentist. Together with his circle of friends, he protested against Assad’s brutal reaction to the first wave of demonstrations against his regime, which has since plunged the country into chaos, laid half of its cities in ruins, and forced millions of its people to flee. For Ahmad, standing idly by simply wasn’t an option. “Of course I got involved in the protests,” he affirms. On Facebook and on YouTube he and his friends called for peaceful demonstrations against the government.

In 2013 he decided to flee the embattled city of Dara’a. His odyssey lasted for three months: He made his way to Turkey on foot, and from there he got to Italy, and later to Austria. On his arrival in Germany, he got a job in a metal processing plant, and subsequently worked for a time in Munich’s Allianz Arena. But what he really wanted to do was to take up his studies again, although this seemed like an impossible dream. Ahmad’s command of German was inadequate, and his application for political asylum is still under review. “But then LMU came up with its Preparatory Program for Refugees,” he says. The program offers courses designed to equip refugees like Ahmad with the knowledge and skills required for enrollment in a full-time degree course at a German university. It thus provides those who do not possess all of the qualifications necessary for matriculation as a regular student with the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars – for which they receive academic credits – and it includes language lessons. “By next year, I hope to be able to speak German well enough to apply for a place in the course in Dental Medicine,” Ahmad says. In the meantime, he is delighted to have the chance to focus on learning again. “The brain needs nourishment too,” he says.

Shamar German-Syrian exchange
Samar Shammas is another of those who have come from Syria to Germany – simply because she currently cannot see any prospects of a future for herself in her homeland. “I have not come here as a refugee. But the whole situation in Syria at the moment is extremely difficult,” Samar says, although it doesn’t take much to keep me happy,” she adds. “All I really need is a chair and a table – and books.” But at home in Damascus it became increasingly hard to find the books she needed. Her own library was destroyed when a bomb hit her home. And the reference libraries which are so essential for every doctoral candidate have all been closed. She was rescued from this impossible situation by the award of a fellowship from LMU’s Graduate School “Distant Worlds”, and is now writing the last chapters of her doctoral thesis at LMU. This fortunate turn of events was facilitated by the fact that Syrian universities have long enjoyed good relations with their counterparts in Germany. “And Germany is one of the very few countries in Europe which still maintains close relationships with researchers in Syria,” she says. Samar’s thesis advisor in Damascus drew her attention to the fellowship program and put her in contact with Professor Adelheid Otto at the Graduate School. With the fellowship assured, she was able to obtain a visa that enables her to work and study in Germany.

For the majority of refugees, however, the path to acceptance as a full-time student at LMU is likely to be rather more complicated than in the cases of Samar and Ahmad. Refugees who have already been registered in a different member country of the EU run the risk of being deported – even if they possess the qualifications for entry to university. Take the case of a refugee who arrived in Germany via Bulgaria – and informed his LMU professor that he had been tortured there. Nevertheless, he could still be sent back to Bulgaria there at any moment. Academics at LMU support his wish to study here, and are now doing all they can to ensure that he gets the chance to do so.

LMU has initiated a program specifically for refugees and asylum-seekers who have already attended university in their home countries, which is designed to prepare them for enrollment as full-time students. In addition to enabling refugees to attend lecture courses, the program also provides for participation in free German classes organized by “Deutschkurse bei der Universität München”.