NAU alumna teaches international refugees

NAU alumna Susanna Dart has been working with refugees seeking shelter in Bochum, a city in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

Since the refugee crisis began, thousands of people fleeing war are integrated into European culture. Dart’s work involves educating people living in refugee camps and assisting in educating international students at Bert-Brecht-Gymnasium — a local college preparatory school — in the city of Dortmund, just north of Bochum.

Dart graduated from NAU with a Bachelor of Science in biology and a Bachelor of Arts in modern languages with an emphasis in German. Through NAU she was able to gain experience in teaching and helping people in difficult situations.

“Being a Supplemental Instruction Leader and also being a teaching assistant kind of gave me some ideas about how to teach very difficult topics,” said Dart. “Also, as the German Club president, we would cook dinner for people at Hope Cottage, a center of refuge in Flagstaff for homeless women and children. I was also a peer mentor with NAU’s peer mentor program for transfer students and you could say that also helped give me this compassionate way to deal with people.”

In addition to her work at NAU, Dart also gained experience teaching German and English to people from diverse backgrounds in Herne, Germany. Her background proved to be helpful because Germany needed volunteer teachers for the incoming refugees. In an attempt to help refugees integrate, the U.N. mandated every country providing asylum must offer some sort of base education. The issue with this mandate is the lack of power to regulate how that education system would be carried out in each country. Many European nations have provided free education for those in need.

Currently, Bochum is home to 5,908 refugees. Of those, certain school-aged children are allowed in the permitting local schools. Others hoping to learn rely on volunteers to teach; these students include those who are too old or too young for traditional school, or children from areas that have not been approved for courses.

Dart currently does work for both types of cases. Not only has she been working as a volunteer coordinator and language instructor with the Hamme Hilft, a local community action organization centered on helping refugees integrate, but also with Bert-Brecht-Gymnasium, which accepts refugees.

“There are some [students] who say ‘we want to help the refugees.’ They wrote to big companies to get some stuff for the lessons and we got so many supplies for the international class,” said the vice principal of the Dortmund school, who wished to remain anonymous. “Now in some of situations, the refugees are in the normal classes. One girl, she is in my class, and it is so nice to see how she is a part of the class and how her German gets better and better.”

Dart’s mornings and afternoons are spent at the school in Dortmund where she works as a teaching assistant three to four days a week. She goes to classes, like the teachers, and listens to assignments, presentations and lectures from the German students. She also teaches independent lessons, designs supplemental projects that are several weeks long and runs after-school workshops for students.

The international classes are a little different. While German students have been in the same classes with each other for years and have learned how to work with their teachers, the international classes consist of students from differing backgrounds, ages and countries. Some students have not missed a day of school while others have barely been. A recurring theme in these classes is the war and the U.N.’s refugee camps unable to provide consistent or adequate education. The teachers and students work together to overcome these barriers.

Educators assumed that communication between students would be the biggest issue. But they have developed their own system of making sure that not only is everyone included, but they can learn with the rest of the group.  Many of the students speak several different languages, or are at least bilingual, which is what enables a positive form of communication.

“Some of our students speak several languages,” said one of the teachers who works with the international class, who also wished to be anonymous. “There is this girl who is from Spain … and English is her mother language or native tongue. And sometimes if I have translation problems I can tell her something in English, then she can say it in Spanish, the Spanish girl who speaks Arabic can say it in Arabic, and in the Spanish terms, the Italian children can also understand. Everyone understands at some point what this word means, and that is how we get around it.”

Following her day in Dortmund, Dart works at the refugee center to teach those who await asylum status, or who are unable to attend school. While her work at the school is as an assistant, her work at the home is as a teacher. She prepares the lessons by herself.

“Before you work with them you have to come into the mindset that they are people like you that just happen to be living in a gym because their country is at war,” Dart said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that we have doctors and people with doctorates and people who are highly educated. Really we have all the professions in the refugee home and I think a lot of people don’t realize that …When they come and they see people that are just like them, that can be really hard.”

There are a few different techniques Dart teaches with. She explains how at the beginning of each lesson she will work with the people who are just learning the Latin alphabet and numbers. There are a few students who never grew up using these letters, and while they may be able to speak a Latin-based language, they cannot read it. Following that part of the lesson, she moves on to something more practical the entire group can join in on, such as conversational German.

Lessons can be about anything, but they often develop differently than expected. Dart may have a “really nice lesson planned out” but because it is snowing outside, she may give impromptu lessons on weather because it is what the class is interested in at that moment. The important part is these students are learning to understand a language and a culture so they can assimilate and hopefully get their lives back.

These practical lessons may also be followed by other social events. The city of Bochum itself provides activities free to refugees in an attempt to help them socialize with local community members. These events also help dismantle fear and negative connotations surrounding the refugees. The homes and local churches do the same. Events such as “meet and greets” or large social dinners are held monthly or bi-monthly to assist in creating a community.

Not only does Dart volunteer and teach, but also helps organize events like these so refugees have the chance to thrive in a difficult situation.

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