Syrian Students in the Maze of German Universities

Migrations, a Vanishing Horizon · Seven hundred thousand Syrian refugees live in Germany, more than half of whom are under 25 years of age, according to the German Office for University Exchanges. What do they face when they seek to enter university, those whose studies have been interrupted by the revolution and war?

Dresden, 21 July 2015. Yazan Atassi, a 20-year-old Syrian boy, dreams of studying nanotechnology if he passes his university entrance exam.
Arno Burgi/dpa/Alamy Live News

Any foreigners hoping to enroll in a German university must fulfill two main requirements: proof of general higher education entrance qualification (Hochschulzugangsberechtigung, HZB) and demonstration of adequate German language skills. Certificates of secondary school education from certain countries are accepted as adequate for admission into the German higher education system (after converting the grades to their equivalent in the German system), without needing to pass further tests, while nationals of other countries have to enroll in a preparatory course (Studienkolleg) offered by a number of universities and institutes.

With regards to the certification process for German language proficiency, most universities accept language programs like DSH, Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache (TestDaF), Goethe Institut, and Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang (DSD, considered the German-language equivalent of programs like TOEFL and IELTS).

A recognized equivalency

Other universities offer their own German language programs or accept German language skills at CEFR level C1; some universities, particularly those specializing in the arts, accept even lower levels in German language. Students apply for their desired programs and universities through the Uni-assist system, competing with others for the quota set for non-EU residents, after having their secondary school certificate, or university courses (in the event of resuming a degree) converted to their equivalent in the German system.

University education at public universities is free for Germans and foreigners — students are only required to pay registration fees, which come out to 100-350 euros per semester. The majority of those fees are actually recouped in the form of services and discounts provided to student card holders.

On paper, Syrian students have it better than students from many other countries, as the Syrian Secondary School Education certificate is eligible for equivalence without further coursework if the student obtained a grade of more than 70 percent, and need only take the preparatory course if their grades are between 60 and 70 percent. In other words, getting into a German university is not that challenging if you’re a well-off Syrian, you managed to get good grades in secondary school, you meet the requirements to obtain a German study visa, and you are able to cover the costs of living and education. However, this is not the case for many Syrians living in Germany today, the vast majority of whom are refugees and who are emotionally and financially drained. Many of them lack the emotional and financial cushion offered by functional networks of family and friends, these networks themselves having been hit hard in the last couple of years. It is common to be heavily in debt, and reliant on the assistance offered through the German Social Welfare Services. That is not to mention that many of the young people of university entrance age have been through the trauma of imprisonment, forced displacement, and extensive periods of instability.

At the mercy of bureaucracy

Ayham (false name) studied medicine at the University of Damascus until the 5th year, when he was arrested by security forces for his activism against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. After his release he moved to one of the areas not controlled by the regime, then on to Turkey. Ayham arrived in Germany in early 2015 as part of a research fellowship at a German institute. After the fellowship ended, he applied for refugee status in Germany. He had to endure a waiting period of a year and a half before he acquired refugee status documents. This document would allow him to register at the employment office and receive financial reimbursement to fund his German language study program within the refugee integration programs, in addition to the employment office’s provision of housing and a monthly stipend for living expenses. These services can be supplemented with part-time employment; however, he was only allowed to work for the number of hours that would generate a maximum income of 450 euros per month.

During his refugee status determination waiting period, Ayham studied German at a private institute, which cost him about 250 euros per month. This ate away at his already meager and unstable income. According to Ayham: “Generally, the employment office encourages you to attend the language courses offered under the refugee integration program. This means you only make it to B1, and enter the job market as soon as possible. Either that or you enroll in one of the vocational rehabilitation programs (Ausbildung), which basically provides paid internships at partnering companies or institutions. The employment officer in charge of your file will not directly prevent you from pursuing your language study until your proficiency level meets the criteria for academic registration. There is room for negotiation and persuasion to get the office to continue to provide assistance during the preparation period before the language proficiency test, but — on principle — it’s preferred that you enter the job market as quickly as possible.”

Sham Al Aley (false name) 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 rehabilitation program or through getting a training contract at a media outlet,” she said. “But my quick advancement in the language convinced my employment officer, and the office continued to support me until I achieved the language proficiency level required by the university.”

“Waiting is the most difficult thing”

Ayham managed to meet university admission criteria for language proficiency by enrolling in a German-language course offered to refugees by the University of Humboldt in Berlin as part of the Integra and Welcome programs. These courses, which are starting to be offered by most German universities since 2015, allow enrollees to progress to the level required to take the DHS exam or its equivalents for free. Ayham noted the importance of the role played by advanced language courses offered by universities:

“The level is advanced and the quality of education is much more useful to those who want to pursue university education than the language courses offered under integration to the general refugee population,” he said.

Homam, who left Syria for good in 2013, is of the same opinion as Al Aley on this matter. He had been studying civil engineering at the University of Tishreen-Latakia. He made it to Germany in 2015 after a short passage through Lebanon followed by two years of residence in Turkey, during which he applied for a study visa to Germany. Hamam enrolled in the language course offered by the Technical University of Berlin, where he plans to resume his engineering studies.

“The most difficult thing you have to do is wait, because you have all this financial and emotional pressure, decisions that you have to make,” Hamam said. “One has to put everything on hold while waiting for the issuance of approvals, proofs, and deadlines.”

It’s common for these waiting periods to mean a discontinuation of aid until the registration process is complete, thus allowing the person to qualify for scholarships or student loans. After undergoing the long journey of seeking refuge, Eiyas Adeh has just made it to Germany in 2016. He had studied medicine in Syria until the 6th year, but his studies were put on hold due to the events in the country. He is now hoping to gain university admission after completing his language course. Adeh feels the same way as Hamam about the dilemma of waiting, and adds:

“Perhaps waiting is a viable option for someone who has well-off relatives who can provide them with financial support for months on end, or for someone who lives with their family. Even if all of the family are refugees, the assistance given to three people could — temporarily — cover the living and housing expenses for a fourth or fifth person. But for someone living alone without any sort of support of this kind, the strain caused by waiting could lead one to postpone study plans indefinitely or drop them completely in order to get a job.”

Adeh also points to other difficulties which could make university plans almost impossible, in light of the extremely strained circumstances endured by a large portion of young Syrian refugees: “Getting accepted into a university located in another city means having to cover the expenses of moving as well as renting a new place and paying a security deposit, something that most Syrian youth cannot afford. Even if they have applied for loans or scholarships, they don’t receive the money concurrent to admission but have to wait for it, sometimes for several weeks after admission.”

In the event that someone has been approved for a student loan (BAföG), it’s possible to negotiate between the employment office and the Federal Training and Education Assistance Office to ensure that there isn’t an income gap during the waiting period.

In addition, a number of organizations and institutes offer grants and other forms of assistance with passing language exams and getting around bureaucratic roadblocks and administrative requirements.

The German system has tried to adapt to the exceptional circumstances of Syrians, particularly in terms of the possibility of receiving documentation and paperwork. This adaptation process was slow enough to prevent many from achieving their goals. However, many others have benefited from the education system’s recognition of the problem, in light of the accumulation of similarly exceptional cases, then taking the necessary steps to remedy the situation.

The “visiting student”

With the steady increase in the number of refugees settling in Germany, starting in 2015 the Federal Ministry of Education and Scientific Research has allocated a sum of 100 million euros to set up programs dedicated to the support and integration of refugees wishing to enroll in higher education programs in Germany. A research paper released by the German Academic Exchange Service in the fall of 2017 indicates that the vast majority of these funds have gone to programs such as Welcome and Integra, which have partnered with universities in order to establish language courses that would allow enrollees to sit for the language proficiency tests required for university admission. The funds also established preparatory courses for refugees who might need them depending on the status of their secondary school certificate and their grades. There has also been an agreement with the organization that conducts equivalence for secondary school certificates and organizes admission into German universities to give refugees the option of applying to up to three different study courses per semester for free.

The report indicates that the number of beneficiaries from these programs has exceeded 6,800 students during the year 2016, and is expected to exceed 10,000 annually beginning in 2017. Regarding the distribution of nationalities benefiting from these programs, the report indicates that about 75 percent of the students are Syrian, six percent are Afghan, another six percent are Iranian, and three percent are Iraqi. As for the gender distribution, according to the report males make up 81 percent of the total beneficiaries, while among Syrians the percentage of males is even higher at 83 percent.

Many universities also offer the “visiting student” option; this provides refugee students with the opportunity to attend classes for a course of their choosing as a listener, in addition to attending German language courses. It’s possible for the students to sit for course exams and have their results recorded, and once the student manages to gain admission to the course the results are transferred to the student’s academic record.

In addition to the programs that support the integration of refugees and prepare them for university life in Germany, they are also eligible to apply for German Federal Training Assistance for students (BAföG). The assistance program, established in 1971, is meant to support low-income students with monthly installments; the current maximum is set at 735 euros. Half is a grant from the government, and the other half is an interest-free loan. Students are obliged to return an amount set at a maximum of 10,000 euros over an extended period of time after they have completed their studies.

Anyone under the age of 30 can apply to receive financial aid for their first year at university, while for the master’s degrees the age limit is 35. It’s possible to exceed the age limit on an exceptional basis if the person can show adequate documentation that they started their university education before turning 30 and had to drop out for compelling reasons. This is another procedure which can be added to the list of obstacles and wait times already mentioned.

In addition to this, beneficiaries of this assistance can work part-time for a number of hours that would generate a maximum income of 250 euros per month, which is vital in areas with a high standard of living like Bavaria, where the cost of renting a room in shared housing alone can use up to two thirds of the received aid.

In addition to the BAföG, a number of organizations, political parties and academic institutions offer their own grants. Some universities fund refugees with their donor funds. Wafa Moustafa had studied media for three years at the University of Damascus before being forced to halt her studies after her arrest. She made it to Germany as a refugee after applying to several universities, and was accepted 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.

The language barrier

“As soon as you get here, you find yourself with a lot of options that you can barely understand, especially with the language barrier,” Hamam says. Eyas adds, “There are information offices inside universities, and there are volunteers and information desks which were established as part of the refugee support programs, but they are still unable to deal with the complexities of our situation as Syrians. Perhaps they are able to communicate the legal texts and explain them but the information provided by these initiatives are very general, and are sometimes incapable of understanding the details of our different circumstances.”

Sham Al Aley says she’s benefited from the experiences of young Syrians who came before her: “Personal acquaintances and pages and groups on social media provide information specific to our situation as Syrian refugees,” she says.

Hanam says that “the most valuable information resource is someone with a similar case as you who’s been there for a couple of months or a year prior to you.”

The “Work and Study in Germany” group on Facebook, Eyas says, is a vital and complete resource with regards to the required steps for gaining university admission, as well as a good database for scholarships, available assistance programs and the timelines for applying to them. This group is followed by more than 125,000 people on Facebook. They post information daily for people interested in pursuing higher education in Germany at different levels.

While the main dilemma seems to concern resuming education and obtaining a university degree, it was apparent during the interviews conducted in preparation for this text, as well as conversations and discussions in other contexts, that young people are becoming increasingly inclined towards fields of studies that do not conform to “ realistic expectations” i.e. away from the fields traditionally esteemed by Syrian parents: medicine, engineering and pharmacy and towards the field of humanities, social sciences and history. Perhaps this stems from a desire to understand the self and what is to become of it considering the calamities that have befallen Syrians in the last few years. But that is a different topic of research — one which does not concern Syrian refugees alone among the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.