Hannah Grover talks about teaching refugees

Year Abroad student Hannah Grover talks about her time volunteer teaching German in a refugee camp in Greece.

Hannah's placement was self-organised and not organised through or by the University of Leeds. Hannah has kindly offered to give advice on volunteering as a German teacher in camps so please email her on ml15hg@leeds.ac.uk if you have any questions.

At the start of August, I found myself with nothing to do for the next couple of months ahead of my move to Munich for third year placement. I began to look for work experience with charities/NGOs and discovered greecevol.info, a website putting aid organisations in Greece in touch with volunteers looking to help with the ongoing refugee crisis there. Although the refugee crisis seems to have fallen out of the British media recently, there are still approximately 62,000 individuals stuck in limbo in Greece, many of whom are waiting to be transferred to Germany for family reunification. A large amount of the posts on this website were from organisations looking for German speakers to teach German to refugees who are desperate to learn the language before their move. Within twenty-four hours I had heard back from a few organisations and decided to go to one in Northern Greece to work with Yazidi people. The Yazidis are a long persecuted ethnic and religious minority from northern Iraq who ISIS labelled three years ago as devil-worshippers and began to systematically kill, enslave, rape and torture them.

I had had very little time to think about what I was getting myself into until the day of the flight when I began to panic. I knew hardly anything about my working or living conditions, I questioned whether my German was of a good enough level to teach and I was nervous about possible secondary trauma, something many aid workers experience.

These concerns were not entirely unfounded; I slept on an air mattress on a balcony in an apartment with six other volunteers, taught on a tarpaulin in an abandoned park with lessons being interrupted by the antics of local Roma children, spent my first few lessons trying to convince some classes that I can speak German despite it not being my first language, and there were a few conversations with pupils that kept me awake at night. However, the greatest challenge was dealing with the demand for German lessons. Complications within the organisation itself meant that I left earlier than wanted, but in the twenty four days I was at the camp I taught over ninety lessons to around 45 students between 6 and 50+ years old.

The ability levels varied from illiterate women to teens who could be entered for GCSE or AS exams in the UK, and class sizes ranged from two men (after the other three had been transferred to Athens) to eighteen teen boys and over twenty in my women’s class when they all decided to start bringing their young children along to learn the basics. The only non-changing variable was the enthusiasm for learning and the warmth each one of my students held for me and the other volunteers. Their thirst for German vocabulary and insights into day-to-day life in Germany was like nothing I have ever seen in my school career and, collectively, my pupils proved every stereotype of inspiring, hard-working, resilient and generous refugees right.

Often it is questionable whether volunteering does make a difference, especially when middle class young adults fly out to countries and cultures they know nothing about and only stay for a few weeks. It is beyond doubt, however, how much I and other volunteers impacted these people this summer. As far as I saw, it is almost entirely due to the work of volunteers that refugees are getting any real support in Greece, other than basic shelter from the UN, so everything I taught them was highly valued.

The demand for German teachers in camps is still very high and if this is something you’re interested in helping with, feel free to email me for any advice at ml15hg@leeds.ac.uk.

Special mention must go to my lecturers Ingo, Stephan, Hilary and Judith who calmed my nerves and gave me incredible pointers and tips for teaching resources and methods.

 German teaching volunteering - Hannah Grover