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Deutschlandstipendiat Sinksar Ghebremedhin

Giving refugees a voice

München, 04/21/2017

Many passers-by no doubt take him to be a refugee. But Sinksar Ghebremedhin (25) is a native of Swabia – and a student of Media Informatics at LMU. He seldom corrects the misconception: “In Munich, I’m less afraid of being taken for an Eritrean than I am of being recognized as someone from Swabia,” he jokingly remarks. But he does spend much of his time with people from far-flung parts of the world who have left their homelands behind them. For Sinksar and his colleagues in the Students4 Refugees initiative give classes in German for refugees who hope to study here.

Photo: Jan Greune

“Only refugees who have acquired a good grasp of the language and can express themselves in it can gain access to education and be rapidly integrated in German society,” he points out. Students4 Refugees provides refugees with the language skills that enable them to take up or continue a university course. The idea for Students4Refugees occurred to Sinksar two years ago, while he was on a three-month visit to Eritrea. “My name and part of my cultural heritage is Eritrean,” he says. Millions of people – including his parents – were forced to leave that country during the course of an armed conflict with Ethiopia which would last for 30 years. His eldest brother was born in the early 1980s in Sudan, and his family finally found refuge and settled in the Swabian town of Esslingen. “I did not personally experience the horrors of war and the perils of flight,” he says, “but through my parents I am closely linked with my other home.”

Sinksar’s trip to Eritrea in 2015 was in part a quest to understand his own family’s history. But while he was doing a practical in the Ministry for Information in Asmara, he got to know other students of his own age. “And that was what opened my eyes to the situation,” he says, and “I decided there and then that when I got back to Germany I would do something about it.” Of course, he could not imagine that Germany would soon be experiencing a flood of refugees … But back in Bavaria, he became an interpreter in the Bayernkaserne, a former military garrison which now provides temporary accommodation for refugees in Munich. With his knowledge of both Tigrinya and English, in addition to his native idiom, he was perfectly placed to help Eritreans and others in their interactions with the municipal authorities and with doctors, as well helping them to adapt to other aspects of their new and unfamiliar surroundings.

His encounters and experiences with ever increasing numbers of refugees made a deep impression on him: Among the refugees with whom he came into contact were many students like those he had met in Asmara. “And it struck me that their talents were being wasted,” he says. If they could only have the opportunity to continue their studies, they could act as multipliers who could help others to adapt to their new circumstances, he thought. So he got together with his friend Phi Tran and they formulated a plan for the provision of German language courses for educated refugees, which they submitted to all third-level institutions in Munich.

Sacrificing a term to help others
In the Winter Term 2015 and in cooperation with the Institute for German as a Foreign Language at LMU, 25 volunteer teachers from various disciplines designed a language course specifically for refugees – and the University of Applied Sciences in Munich provided the necessary premises. Since then, LMU’s Julia Blanco has been coaching the four sets of teachers. Each of these teams takes charge of a class of around 10 students. In addition to learning German, students receive instruction in German culture and the German way of life. “Knowledge of language and culture is absolutely crucial for successful integration into an unfamiliar society,” as Sinksar emphasizes. The project also receives support and advice from specialists in the social sciences and experts in intercultural communication, as well as help from various charities.

There is however one aspect of the project which Sinksar did not anticipate – how much of his time it would take up. The search for refugees who had obtained residence permits in Munich and were also able to prove that they had the requisite qualifications for university turned out to be more arduous than expected, and bureaucratic hurdles also had to be overcome. At the same time, in order to be able to finance his own studies, Sinksar continued to work as a tour guide to the Olympia Park. “My parents send all their savings to Eritrea, and I wouldn’t want to burden them further by asking them for money,” he explains. So, solely in order to keep the project alive, he took a semester off.

After the first term, the course concept was revised and further developed. Students4 Refugees now offers three German classes per week. In addition, classes explore the city together, visit museums or take part in guided tours of local libraries. On these excursions outside the confines of the classroom the students can put what they have learned into practice, and become better acquainted with the city itself. “And of course, they also come into contact with the German university system and with students,” says Sinksar.

The other side of the coin is that many dedicated learners at some point receive deportation orders. Nevertheless, some do manage to embark on a regular course of study, and four have already obtained their degrees (a Bachelor’s, two Master’s and – and one PhD). Others have chosen vocational training courses. And many of those who have taken and profited from the language lessons provided by Students4 Refugees go on to take up voluntary community work – in their local volunteer fire brigade, for instance. Such large and small successes are what keep Sinksar going. “I’m not about to give up now,” he says.