by Brhan Al Zoabi, in charge of the Refugee Teachers' programme at GEW Sachsen State Branch, in Germany.

Among the many people who have fled to Germany since 2015 are many skilled workers who have not only lost their families, friends, history, work, future, property, home and dreams, but also their direction, path and goal. In other words, they have lost everything.

Some workers have found other areas of work, which is not easy, in particular, for teachers. What other work can a teacher do who has worked in teaching in his or her home country for more than 20 years? In this article, I want to present the prospects and ideas of a team of refugee teachers, whose network is spread through Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz; a network built with the support of GEW Saxony.

The first step is always the hardest: German!

I found myself at rock bottom about three years ago when I still couldn’t speak any German. German is one of the most difficult languages in the world. I had to make a real effort to participate in everyday life and what I learnt at the language school up to level B1 was not enough for that. It only sufficed for simple, uncomplicated communication, for example, at the supermarket or with very patient neighbours. One can hardly make friends, take part in job interviews or communicate with other people in an understandable way. 

The language school plays the biggest part in the language training of the participants. What struck me, however, is the great interest shown by the school in the fees it charges to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and the considerable neglect of the learning process. The teaching staff were not professional teachers, but were only able to teach materials for a low level. In addition, the classes were very lax, with the result that most of those attending did not take the teaching content very seriously. Furthermore, only four of six textbooks had been taught by the end of the course. These correspond to level A2, and not to B1 or even the “integration course”. 

Off to the labour market!   

The linguistic skills learnt at the language school are not sufficient to apply for a position that might have been offered by the job centre or through advertisements. 

The job application letter is a major challenge. At the first interview, you encounter the bitter reality that you need much, too much, to gain proper entry to the labour market. We are talking here about a teacher with many years of experience in the teaching profession who is now applying for a position as something else. Language is not the only obstacle, there’s also the matter of appropriate qualifications. 

To be able to work as a salesperson in my home country, you don’t have to do an apprenticeship, you just need to be persuasive, loyal, nice, self-confident and smart. In Germany it’s different, because you need a commercial qualification that requires three years.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to obtain recognition for qualifications in the teaching profession. What does it mean for a teacher who was trained over a period of several years in Syria and then gathered a lot of experience in teaching and now have to perform a completely different job and also have to re-learn all this beforehand? 

Finding the right way

There have been a very large number of measures and events intended to advise refugee academics what ways exist for them to find a new career and training or further training programmes or studies. This has been very helpful to a lot of people. However, there are considerably fewer options for those who are already older and do not get any financial support, for example. under the BAföG (Federal Training Support Law). Refugee teachers already have had many years of experience and have undergone a lot of training courses. In addition, they often have responsibilities for families with children. 

I got to know the Chairperson of the Trade Union for Education and Science (GEW), Ms. Uschi Kruse, by chance during an event at the University of Leipzig. I was very happy to find my way here in Germany. She was happy as well to receive assistance from me in working with refugee teachers.  As there do not appear to be any law that clearly states that refugee teachers can practice their profession in German, our objective is to build a network and develop a concept with regard to how and under what conditions refugee teachers can play a positive role in countering the nationwide teacher shortage.

This has taken a great deal of work, effort and energy to identify and connect with teachers scattered in different neighbourhoods. Since then, we have been learning about the education system in this network; a big step in the right direction. We are also networking and contacting politicians and media with the support of GEW Saxony to present our concerns. The GEW is an organisation that we, as teachers, feel affiliated with, especially because of the open collegial attitude we have found there.

Obstacles and problems 

In Leipzig alone, there are already around 80 refugee teachers (with the number rising constantly) with different Syrian qualifications and degrees. 

Although it is not easy for a foreign teacher to meet the requirements for gaining access to the German school system, the members of the network are nevertheless endeavouring to make this possible. The main focus of our efforts is on recognition of the qualification acquired abroad. It is not just a matter of the high fees connected to being able to take additional courses, between EUR 200 and 500, but also the further theoretical studies, which take several additional years and involve the repetition of a lot of information that has already been learnt. Furthermore, studying a second subject also comes into play as required for the teaching profession in Saxony.

There are only two instances of a qualification programme for refugee teachers at university; the Universities of Potsdam and Bielefeld with their Refugee Teachers Programme. These include around 55 mentors and teachers. The programme lasts 1½ years. German is taught in the first semester, with the second semester including courses/lectures, laws, teaching methods and placement in a school and the last six months spent on intensive training to acquire the C1 (GER) language level qualification.

Acceptance of refugee teachers by the parents, students and German teaching colleagues, who have been heavily exposed to the hate of the right-wing populist media, has improved largely through the support of the GEW in Saxony as well as in other federal states. This is also fosters self-assertion of refugee teachers. Refugee teachers can help improve the blurred and distorted image of refugees.

In fact, rather than just teach their subjects in German schools, refugee teachers could also play an additional, helpful role in teaching and integrating refugee children. We are familiar with the culture and education system of our country, from which many refugee children and their parents come. We speak their native language and share the experience and, often, trauma, of fleeing our country with them. Our academic background and teaching experience in our country of origin put us in a good position to convey the standards, values and rules of the German school system to newly arrived children and adolescents.
As a result, there is a far greater chance of reducing misunderstandings between children and between the refugee children and their teachers. We can also make a particularly important contribution in German as a Second Language for refugees. The new skills, tips, solutions to puzzles and logic of the German language learnt by the refugee teacher make it easier for that teacher to teach the foreign language to children from abroad. 

A simple equation has a simple solution

It is already a widely known fact that there is a great shortage of teachers in the schools of Saxony, as well as in the country as a whole.

The mathematical equation is:  

The great shortage of teachers + The qualified refugee teachers = The solution

Or at least part of it.

Time passes very quickly, and children are unfortunately suffering from the great shortage of teachers while refugee teachers suffer from a lack of information and orientation, which causes a great deal of time to be lost. Due to the long waiting periods, the refugee teachers lose the German they have learnt as well as the competence, energy and will to exercise this important profession as a teacher. Some have started looking for other work, while others are trying to move to other federal states where they might find other work. 

There is now a dilemma with many citizens talking about refugees having a major obligation to find a job. However, many refugees speak in this regard about work being a fundamental right for them that they want to realise. They want to work and are enthusiastic. They see work as a right rather than an obligation. Politicians should rethink available options and become active without delay to eliminate this dilemma and find solutions that will take advantage of the skills and the good will of refugee teachers.

From the 26-28 September 2018, the second case-study visit of the ETUCE project “European Sectoral Social Partners in Education promoting effective integration of migrants and refugees in education” took place in Serbia, with the support of the Teacher Union of Serbia (TUS). The visit aimed at identifying challenges, concrete solutions and joint social partners’ initiatives put in place to effectively integrate migrants and refugees in education. Representatives of European social partners (ETUCE the EI European region and EFEE for the employers), the research expert accompanying the project (prof Nihad Bunar, Stockholm University) and representatives from the project advisory group from Slovenia (SVIZ-ESTUS) and Ireland (ETBI) had the opportunity to learn more about good practices and challenges in the Serbian education system with regards to policies on inclusion and integration.

During the study visit, participants had the chance to discuss with the Ministry of Education, Serbian Commissariat for Refugees, UNICEF, NGO representatives, teachers and school heads, migrant students and parents, refugee teachers and local political leadership on how national guidelines for migrants’ and refugees’ integration in education institutions were formulated and implemented at all levels.

Being a transit country for refugees, Serbia is currently hosting 3360 asylum-seekers, including 344 children enrolled in 33 schools across the country. With a view to ensuring access to quality education for asylum-seeking children, the Serbian community is mobilising to face a wide range of challenges; from language acquisition to teaching and learning in the mother tongue and in a second language, to catering for displaced students having experienced trauma or even to logistics and practicalities related to catering, transporting to and from asylum centres and school supplies for a supportive school environment. Lack of and decreasing financial support from international donors and institutions, poses an additional threat to the sustainability of the integration process.

While visiting asylum centres and education institutions in Belgrade, Sombor and Subotica, the study delegation was made aware of the increasing demands on teachers, trainers and school heads at all levels of education in terms of meeting migrant and refugee children’s needs. The need for continuous professional development on teaching Serbian as a second-language, intercultural competences and psychosocial support, as well as compensation and reward for additional work carried out, was a focus of the discussion and is regarded as an essential prerequisite for effectively integrating migrants and refugees in education.

Concluding the visit, the social partners at national and European levels agreed on the importance of continuous social dialogue on this important topic, as well as of strengthening partnerships with all actors from society and the school community, stressing the importance of an effective European cooperation based on better knowledge about the situation in the different EU and EU-candidate countries for delivering equal educational opportunities to migrant and refugee children.

More information on this project is available here.

By Manuel Crespo Nievas, José Miguel Megías Leyva and Begoña López Cuesta.

Commitment to ensuring the right to education for refugee children, forcibly displaced persons, stateless persons, those seeking international protection and migrants necessitates an inclusive school system. This concerns not only teaching and didactic matters, to research and innovation in education, but also the realm of moral values and social justice.  

This poses a direct challenge for trade unions that seek to drive educational reforms both within educational centres and their surrounding framework, supporting teachers through discovering individually tailored, innovative solutions to address a diverse range of students, despite lower salaries, unpaid overtime and lack of available specialised training, among other issues.

Proyecto Roma (Project Rome) is not merely an educational model for public schools, but also a moral commitment to said schools and all their students, who day by day continue to lose their dignity and whose needs fail to be addressed, and we are not referring to the implementation of Special Needs for Educational Support under Spanish educational regulations established with a view to accommodating diversity in the student body. No, we do not meet students’ needs by labelling them on the basis of their specific needs and challenges, but rather by helping them to learn and develop their own individual strengths, enabling each student in a class group to overcome their individual struggles.

This is the story of Abel[1], together with his classmates and his family, as well as his journey, a journey in which we, as teachers, also take part. His story is told through the lens of the traditional paradigm based on diagnoses aimed at assigning labels to students that result in their being paid inadequate attention outside the classroom; far from helping them to overcome their difficulties, it instead only magnifies them and draws attention to them socially, further excluding and isolating Abel from his peers.

Abel first arrived at our school, a small school in the rural areas of Granada, when he was only 4 years old. Having come from a dysfunctional family, he arrived having already experienced a very difficult life at such a young age.

After completing nursery, albeit not without difficulties, he progressed to primary school, where he joined a class of 14 other students.

Upon completing the second year of primary school, his teacher suggested that five students repeat the year. Abel, of course, was one of the five chosen.

Broadly speaking, the group consisted of: two girls from immigrant families with limited knowledge of Spanish, a girl with high intellectual capacity, Abel, diagnosed with special educational support needs due to severe childhood tonic dysphemia and intellectual disability, and a wide array of learning difficulties among the rest of the students, in addition to an unsustainable classroom environment due to constant lack of respect, in which even families themselves were contributing to the issues faced by many of the children.

As the management team, we had already been observing and analysing the challenges faced by a large number of the students in our school for some time. In Abel’s case, these challenges were not helped by the diversity awareness measures implemented in an effort to help students, including removing him from the classroom for therapeutic pedagogy and sessions with a hearing and language specialist. Rather than improving his level of learning or development, these measures only served to further isolate Abel from his peer group.

It was clear to us that we could not address diversity awareness through uniformity, but we lacked a model that enabled us to develop an adequate strategy that would ensure a successful, high-quality education for all of the boys and girls in our care.

Proyecto Roma addressed the issues that we raised: creating communities of co-existence and learning shared by all members of the educational community, valuing the individual differences of each person as part of the wealth of said community, achieving all this through co-operation and collaboration.
We understand diversity as something that can enrich both teaching and learning processes, in which every student, regardless of refugee status, regardless of their individual differences, can not only learn, but also help others to learn alongside them.

A solid theoretical and epistemological framework: Luria, Vigotsky, Freire, Bruner, Dewey, Habermas, Maturana... It is about knowing why we do what we do, and given the experiences of teachers who had been working with this model for several years already, we were certain that this was the solution our school needed.
As a management team, we are committed to the transformation and improvement of our school, including working directly with Abel’s group. This meant becoming tutor for this group in their third year without forcing any of the five chosen students to repeat the previous year, which entailed countless lost hours of managerial work, a salary supplement for changing from secondary to primary school... and many hours of study and sleepless nights.

During the first year working under the Proyecto Roma model, the Assembly was the strategy that enabled us to accomplish some very solid prior goals; it enabled us to get to know each other, both on an individual level and as a group, to build an environment of trust in which everyone was able to express themselves however they wanted, as differences came to be seen as an asset, something that enriched us as a group. We no longer lost Abel’s presence when he left the classroom for extra support; instead, several hours a week, the entire group benefited from the presence of two teachers in the classroom, which enabled every student to learn everything, provided we all helped each other.

We also learnt that environment is the brain (Luria, 1995) and as a result, we organised our classroom (the thinking zone, the communication zone, the affectivity zone, and the independent zone), and the logical thinking process of said organisation, which we would later use to plan our projects. We established the classroom rules, developed and agreed upon by everyone, removed from the minor misunderstandings and difficulties that often arose in our day to day work, instead making the classroom into a democratic space in which values thrive, as these are not taught; rather, they are either lived or rejected (Maturana, 1994)[2]. 

We shifted from the concept of “I” to “we”, making ourselves responsible not only for our own learning, but also for the learning of our classmates, making an effort to understand each individual’s personal challenges and coming up with solutions to overcome them. Abel took on the role of group spokesperson on more than one occasion, as everyone understood that this was the best way of helping overcome his speech impediment, and they did not fear that he might jeopardise the group’s work should he not present well; instead, the most important thing was the great benefit it provided for Abel.

The group’s improvement was remarkable, both in learning and in learning to get along with each other. These successes were even more marked in cases like Abel, who had previously been cast as an outsider. Now, however, he was considered an equal by the rest of the class, both respectful of and receiving respect in turn from his classmates. By following the classroom rules (it was difficult for him to remain seated for more than five minutes), we began to observe in him that personal and social growth that had previously eluded us.

With the trust and support of his classmates, Abel was chosen as the spokesperson for his class to present for the entire school during our World Book Day celebration. Abel’s speech had improved so greatly that he succeeded in stunning the entire audience, as everyone present had anticipated an disaster as inevitable.

His progress in the group continued to improve little by little until, by the end of primary school, he had practically reached the level of his peers. Above all, he had succeeded in truly becoming part of the group, with all of the students working together and respecting everyone around them.

The importance of this case is highlighted not only by Abel’s progress on an individual level, which has been more than remarkable, but also by the improvement of the environment in which before he had always struggled to merely “survive” every day. 

After implementing these changes to our methodology, the classroom became a richer environment for all students, a space filled with constant Learning.

Proyecto Roma, as a transformative, enriching element for educational environments, has helped us to understand that respecting each individual for their differences enables them to learn, and in turn we can all learn from them. It would be extraordinary if girls and boys, adolescents and children, refugees, forcibly displaced persons, stateless persons, migrants or indigenous peoples, alone or together, rather than simply have the theoretical right to a good education were able to truly live experience it like Abel.


[1] Abel is a real boy whose name has been changed for privacy purposes.

[2] For more detailed information about this model, see Fundamentos y prácticas inclusivas en el Proyecto Roma (López Melero, M. Madrid: Morata, 2018).


BRUNER, J. (1997). La educación, puerta de la cultura. Madrid. Visor.
DEWEY, J. (1971). Democracia y Educación. Buenos Aires. Losada
HABERMAS, J. (1987). Teoría de la Acción Comunicativa I. Madrid. Taurus
LÓPEZ MELERO, M. (2018): Fundamentos y Prácticas Inclusivas en el Proyecto Roma. Madrid: Morata
LURIA, A. R. (1974): El cerebro en acción. Barcelona. Fontanella.
MATURANA, H. (1994). El sentido de lo humano. Santiago de Chile: Dolmen
VYGOTSKY, L. S. (1979): El desarrollo de los procesos psicológicos superiores. Barcelona: Crítica.

The authors:

Manuel Crespo Nievas is a teacher and psychopedagogue, director of an education centre in Andalusia and member of the Co-operative Training Action Research Group for Proyecto Roma in Andalusía. Since 2017, he has also worked on the project being developed by Education International (EI) and the Federación Estatal de Enseñanza de CCOO (FECCOO) in Spain.

José Miguel Megías Leyva is a teacher and psychopedagogue, director of an educational centre in Andalusia (CEIP Escultor Cesar Molina Megías). He manages various Educational Plans and Projects and Curricular Materials Development for primary education. Along with Dr. Miguel López Melero, for the past six years, he has been a member of the University of Málaga’s Co-operative Training Action Research Group for Proyecto Roma in Andalusia. Since 2017, he has also participated in the project currently being developed in Spain by Education International (EI) and the Federación Estatal de Enseñanza de CCOO (FECCOO).

Begoña López Cuesta is a political scientist specialising in International Relations and Public International Law. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Solidarity Action and Social Inclusion. As a researcher and promoter of various educational and training programmes, she manages the projects currently in development by Education International (EI) and the Federación Estatal de Enseñanza de CCOO (FECCOO) in Spain, in order to secure the right to education for refugee children, forcibly displaced persons, those seeking international protection, stateless persons, and migrants.

In 2015 some 12,000 refugees, including many young people under 18 without parents, arrived in the state of Bremen (population 670,000).  In face of this situation, the State government’s response consisted in expanding the system via a massive outsourcing of teachers working in the so-called “preparatory courses”. Accompanying important advocacy efforts, involving action-research to identify challenges facing education staff in different sectors and the organisation of a one-day conference in September 2017 in which ca. 100 education workers took part, the GEW state branch succeeded in obtaining the progressive integration of a significant part of these precarious workers.

From 2016 onwards, the number of newly arriving refugees decreased, but the challenges for the education system in Bremen continue. As many refugee children have been moving onto mainstream education after completing the preparatory German language courses, challenges related to providing continuous language support throughout the integration process have emerged. These difficulties and the evolving political context prompted the State authorities to consider moving towards a different approach to newcomers’ education in which children who completed preparatory courses would attend separate – so-called “cooperation” – classes and not integrate ordinary classrooms as happens currently. In light of the above, the union’s campaigning objectives have been evolving towards advocating for quality integrated education for refugees and migrants.

In order to reinforce the union’s response, an internal “open working group” was set up this year, to which external experts, teachers and unionists from other State branches are invited to exchange experiences. Throughout the first half of 2018, three meetings were held in February, April and May. During the first meeting, two experts from the Arbeitnehmerkammer (a non-union body which is the counterpart to the chamber of commerce meant to represent the interests of employees) and the University of Bremen were invited to present structural impediments to the recognition of overseas qualifications in Germany, applying to refugee and foreign-trained teachers. At the second meeting, a former intern of the GEW state branch came to present an Erasmus-funded project at University Vechta which provides support for staff in adult and further education provision for refugees and other migrants. During the third meeting, one colleague from Schleswig Holstein presented how refugees’ education was organised in this State, highlighting differences with the approach adopted in Bremen with a view to enriching the existing approach.

According to Nick Strauss, the treasurer of GEW Bremen State branch, “beyond skilling up participants and sharing practices at national level, these open working group meetings have allowed the State branch to consolidate a core group of local members knowledgeable and active on refugees’ education issues”.


By René Böhme, University of Bremen.

Germany is a country of immigration. Immigration is reflected in the labour market. According to employment statistics of the Federal Statistical Office, the proportion of foreigners in employment subject to social insurance increased between the year 2000 and the year 2016 from 6.8 to 10 percent. 

In the past 16 years, the number of foreign employees in Germany has risen from around 1.9 million to more than 3.1 million people, while the total number of employees subject to social insurance increased by only 12.7 percent. The employment dynamics of foreigners have increased considerably since 2011. In 2016, foreigners made up about half of all growth in the number of employees in Germany. It should be noted that the qualification structure of new migrants has improved significantly (i.e. newly arriving migrants are better qualified) in the 2000s. With the growing importance of foreigners in the German (and Bremen) labour market, the issue of recognition of foreign qualifications is becoming more important. To this end, the federal and state governments have developed legal measures to facilitate the recognition of qualifications that migrants have obtained in their home countries. This makes it easier for skilled workers from abroad to use their professional qualifications in the German labour market. For example, foreign professionals have the right to have a profession-specific competent authority examine the equivalence of the qualification, taking into account their existing professional experience.

However, the chances of gaining recognition vary considerably from job to job. As the results of a study on the implementation of the Recognition Act in Bremen show, the recognition of a teaching qualification is associated with many challenges. When recognizing teachers, a fundamental distinction must be made between obtaining either an official teacher certificate or just a limited teaching qualification (e.g. one subject). Only as an officially certified teacher it is possible to be employed in a public school with a considerably better pay. Those with a limited teacher qualification can, for instance, only teach in non-formal further education institutions. 

To determine which options the migrant teachers have and what they need to do to obtain a teaching permit (i.e. official certification or limited teaching qualification) the responsible authority[1] examines the applicants’ documents and certificates. Depending on the specific training needs of each ‘applicant’, the State Examination Office determines the number of credits/courses that need to be taken at the university. These may not exceed 90 Credit Points and a teaching practice of 18 months. The decision on which measures each applicant needs to take to receive a teaching qualification, is made in collaboration with the Centre for Teacher Education of the University of Bremen. After being admitted to study at the University of Bremen, applicants can take the required courses and following completion, apply for the teaching practice at the State Institute for Schools[2]. Depending on what the needs of each applicant are, the teaching practice period can be between six, 12 or 18 months. For each year of teaching experience abroad, half a year can be deducted from the 18 months. Following the completion of the adaptation measures (i.e. university courses and teaching practice) or after passing the aptitude test, a final decision will be issued by the Senator for Science on the recognition with which the concerned persons can apply for a position as a teacher.

One challenge in recognizing teachers is that there is still (as of December 2017 and even three years after the entry into force of the law) no implementing regulation on how to interpret the law if there are differences between the Senator for Children and Education and the Senator for Science and Health. And, in the absence of an administrative instruction, both authorities may have different views as to when to grant recognition and when not. Without such an instruction, it is up to the respective clerk or clerks, as to what is to be done in individual cases, and the recognition decisions have no legal certainty, so they can be corrected at any time in the administrative court proceedings. It is therefore urgently necessary for both authorities to agree on a legal interpretation.

Furthermore, difficulties arise because teachers abroad often only learn one subject or are trained for another school system. These can then not be hired as full-fledged teachers and are thereby collectively disadvantaged. To solve this structural problem, the relevant regulations would need to be adapted so that one-subject teachers can be full-fledged teachers. For example, the state of Hamburg made that possible. Thus, a flexibilisation of the right of recognition for teachers as in Hamburg for the instruction of only one school subject is a major exception, but Berlin and Bremen are discussing this possibility due to a shortage of teachers.

Specific challenges may arise for certain subjects. For example, the recognition of teachers in ‘German as a second language’ is controversial. Although demand has increased enormously due to the high level of foreign immigration, the Conference of Ministers of Education has not yet included ‘German as a second language’ in its general school curriculum. The result is that teachers of German as a second language are not given full recognition, although the need for teachers in pre-courses, for example, for refugee or migrant children is great. However, some federal states deviate from these guidelines and recognize teachers of ‘German as a second language’, but it is not the case in Bremen yet. Many ‘German as a second language’ teachers teach in language courses, but at lower wages than fully accredited teachers. Physical education teachers cannot obtain recognition in Bremen because the university does not offer this subject anymore and thus no adaptation measures exist. Cooperation with other universities (e.g. Oldenburg) would make sense here. In both cases, it seems that a sort of federal guidance or coordination would help solve these issues (for example terminate discretionary practices across States and enhance recognition in all fields). But some authorities are worried that lowering the requirements for foreign skilled workers compared to teachers trained in Germany can lead to a deterioration of the education system.

Finally, the language challenges are great. Amongst the applicants are both people with very little knowledge of German as well as people with B1 level and more, although rarely B2 level. Even if the language level is legally not a prerequisite for recognition, the applicants must ultimately reach C1 or C2 levels to cope with the necessary adaptation measures. A course that has been in place since autumn 2017 also aims to better prepare foreign teachers for the communication demands of everyday working life. 

The high complexity of the recognition procedure requires a better staffing of the competent authority (Senator for Science) in order to be able to guarantee more extensive support and advice.


[1] In Bremen, the Senator for Science is responsible for the recognition of foreign teacher qualifications.

[2] The State Institute for Schools is an institution of the Senator for Children and Education and has the task of accompanying schools in the state of Bremen in their work and supporting their development. As a centre of excellence, the Institute provides professional, educational and psychological services and support services to all those responsible for the education of primary and secondary school students, lower secondary and secondary schools and vocational schools. The tasks of the Institute are for example the training of trainee teachers and the qualification of teachers, officials and school administrators as well as other pedagogical staff in schools.