German language rush grips Syrians hoping to migrate
Damascus - In a country where teaching is done strictly in Arabic and signs and billboards in foreign language are generally banned, very few people were interested in learning other languages. But almost five years of brutal conflict in Syria has triggered a “language rush” among professionals and students seeking to reach Europe, notably Germany.
Students of all ages are cramming language learning centres in Damascus where the number of such institutions has shot up from three prior to the 2011 conflict to more than 15. They offer German language classes to some 20,000 people monthly.
Students seeking to continue their education in Germany and families trying to be reunited with relatives already settled there hope learning German will increase their chances in getting visas and facilitate the process of family reunion.
Samer Khayreddine, a civil engineer, expressed hope that becoming fluent in German will be a shortcut for his acceptance in a German university offering master’s degree classes. “I have to complete the required language level, which is a precondition for acceptance in any German university,” said Khayreddine, who has finished the first level at al Abaa’ Institute.
His friend Rami Issa, a general physician and also a student at the centre, is waiting to be reunited with his 16-year-old son who arrived in Germany six months ago. “Within the next six months I could be moving to Germany and I have to learn the language as much as possible in order to increase my chances of finding a job quickly,” Issa said.
Issa’s 14-year-old daughter, Rama, sits next to her father in the class. “I find difficulties learning German but with the help of my brother, whom I communicate with through Skype, I have started to pick it up slowly,” she said. Rama and her father completed the first level within three weeks but they have to finish four more levels at least.
In another language centre in Damascus’s Baramka neighbourhood, Oum Fadi and her two children, aged 10 and 11, are poring over German language books. “My husband travelled to Germany three months ago and is waiting for his residence permit to be issued in order to start the family reunion process. In the meantime, we are learning German so the children would not miss a school year in the future,” she said.
The rush to learn German is also driven by opportunities offered to Syrian students and professionals in German universities and German medical centres which are experiencing manpower shortages, said al-Abaa’ Director Riyad Haloush.
“Our students come from different professional backgrounds, including medicine and engineering. They are not limited to new university graduates wishing to continue their education in Germany but include older adults and children hoping to be reunited with their families there,” Haloush said.
Some 80% of those enrolled in German classes are young people who have recently finished university studies. “Initially the foreign languages that were in demand were English and French but, since the outbreak of the war, demand for German increased tremendously because of the high demand for skilled labour in Germany,” German language teacher Marwan Hami said.
“Skilled Syrian labour in a variety of fields arrive in Germany fully prepared and equipped. They even learn the language by 50% and within a few months become ready to enter the market in an ageing society short of young blood… That is why Germany is the primary beneficiary of Syrian migration.”
In addition to German, Swedish and Dutch languages are in demand but no teaching cadres are available in Syria, teacher Ziad Mohamad noted. While demand for German is high across Syria, he said, only a few teaching centres exist outside Damascus, although there are two each in Aleppo and Latakia.
“We have received several requests from Homs and Sweida to open German classes there but it is impossible because of a shortage of teachers.
Most of those who could speak German have already left and work as translators for the refugees in Germany,” Mohamad said.
For Haidar Mahmoud, an engineer from Homs, the only solution was to move to Damascus. ”I have applied to a German university and tried to teach myself German through the internet but it was very hard, so I decided to come to Damascus to attend German classes,” he said.
Pupils pay 15,000 Syrian pounds (about $68) per session, each of which lasts two-three weeks. They must complete five or six sessions to reach the level required to apply for a student visa.
But many fear that the attacks in Paris and jihadi terror alerts sweeping Europe could obstruct the process.
“I have gone through interviews at the German embassy in Beirut and presented all the papers required for family reunion but I fear I might not be able to join my son after the events in Europe, especially because I come from Raqqa, which is under ISIS control,” said Khalil, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Germany has said it expects 800,000-1 million asylum applications by the end of the year.