Refugee Scholarships at Bard College Berlin – A retrospect on 2016 and a preview

The Refugee Scholarship Network gives young refugees the chance to study Liberal Arts. That does not just bring things in motion for them, but for all participants.

von Marion Detjen

Wafa auf einer Kunstausstellung von Studenten auf dem Campus. Foto: Tamar Maare
Wafa at a student artwork exhibition on campus. Photo: Tamar Maare

The Refugee Scholarship Program has been proving itself in practice at Bard College Berlin for almost four months now, the fall term just having come to a close. I have felt incredibly privileged to take part in shaping this practice and witnessing it closely, while I was able to teach a seminar there myself – on German migration history – with a completely international class that included five refugee students.

Last year, thanks to the generous support of private individuals and Trustees of Bard, we were able to offer four full, four-year scholarships. Muhanad, Wafa, Karam and Achmed (all from Syria) have taken up their studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree on full scholarships in September. Yara, Ghaithaa, Dachil and Mohammed (from Syria and Iraq) have informally participated in classes and were able to collect credit points. At least four more full scholarships have been granted to start next September. The Refugee Scholarship Network establishes connections, provides mentoring, takes care of problems that arise, finances courses and stipends and organizes events that give room for the voices of the newly arrived.

Muhanad hört einer Kommilitonin während eines Seminars in Berlin zu.Foto: Tamar Maare
Muhanad listens to a fellow student during a seminar in Berlin. Photo: Tamar Maare

Owing to the small and completely international community at Bard, the refugee students were able to integrate socially from the very first day. They don‘t form a group of their own, but just beautifully enlarge the proportion of students from the MENA-region. Nevertheless, their presence has a distinct and noticeable effect on the College life as a whole. It connects the community to the events of war and forced migration worldwide and especially in Syria. It makes a huge difference whether the students only learn about the war in Aleppo from the media, or whether they know someone as part of their community who is personally affected. Take Wafa, for example: Her father has disappeared in one of Assad‘s prisons for years. When she tells us that she doesn‘t want to talk about freedom, as freedom for her is a „lifestyle“, this acquires an urgency that puts the whole concept of Liberal Arts into a new perspective.

What we are doing means more than helping refugees but rather changing ourselves. The teaching becomes more exciting and multifaceted, it affords more surprises and inclusiveness. Students with completely different backgrounds and on various levels of education learn to listen to each other and to develop their own voices. We learn to profit from the different languages and to diminish the English native speakers‘ privilege. All the same, the students are expected to realize their full academic potential in their essay writing and their presentations. Everyone works incredibly hard – the students to master the rigorous program, and the staff to offer extra supervision and to adapt the teaching to the needs.

The reward that we get for these efforts is obvious. For the first time in my life as a teacher I learn at least as much from my students as they learn from me. To give you examples: Two Jewish Americans and an Israeli in my migration history class have developed a project together with the Syrians that looks into the changes of German Holocaust memorial culture in the wake of the recent immigration. Jews and Syrians cooperate to do research on the Germans! Or projects on „integration“: A Syrian, an Egyptian and two Dutch work on the tools that are considered to be successful for arriving in Germany by a Dutch EU-citizen family and by a Syrian refugee family respectively and compare them. They also try to figure out how these tools relate to the integration policy of the German government.

Of course there are also setbacks. The students are strained heavily by having to compensate the deficits of their school education in a dictatorship and having to catch up lost years of being on the run. They have to fight the bureaucratic problems of their refugee status in Germany. And most of all, they suffer from the hardships for their families and from the worries for their country.

Campus Conversations at Bard College Berlin – a student initiative that fosters dialogue between students, refugees and neighbors. Photo: Tamar Maare

Bard College Berlin is  not the only possible, but the ideal place for the Refugee Scholarship Network‘s activities: for its transdisciplinary Liberal Arts program, for its internationality, for its long tradition of engagement in civil rights and of emigrant thought. As a small private university between the worlds – neither fully American nor fully German, but accredited in both academic systems – it has much more flexibility and room to manoeuvre than a big state university. If the program proves itself successful at Bard, it shall be adapted to other universities.

Each year we want to create at least four full scholarships and options for three or four visitors, adding up to approximately 20 refugee students present at Bard from 2019 onwards. We need ca. 100.000 Euro annually to finance this. In addition, we plan to provide preparation courses for refugees and other disadvantaged groups as blended learning, online and offline, which can reach a lot more students to develop their writing and reading skills and their critical thinking before they enter university.

Karam und seine Kommilitonen während eines Wirtschaftsseminars. Foto: Tamar Maare
Karam and his classmates during an Economics seminar. Photo: Tamar Maare

Furthermore we intend to regularly invite people from the neighbourhood in Berlin Niederschönhausen for campus conversations at Bard and to discuss with them how to live together in a post-migrant society. Faced with the global growth of right-wing populism, we believe that it is not only possible but necessary to have an exchange among established groups and newcomers.

Altogether, the Refugee Scholarship Network sees more at stake than „only“ to enable a handful of refugees to get a good education. There is a need for a new understanding of how academics and education should work; there is a need to revive the old Humboldt ideals of a holistic education and to give the humanities, the arts and the social sciences a fresh legitimation, while they are more and more under pressure for short-sighted economic reasons. And there is also a need to develop new narratives which are up to the challenges of immigrant societies and transnational identities in a world that will more than ever be determined by borders and nation states.

The students in my class have just started. But they know that the future depends on them. Next term, we want to visualize their projects in the working spaces of the BOX Freiraum for an exhibition. The results will be presented in May 2017 during an international conference on the history of European migration regimes at the Berlin Wall Documentary Center. And in September 2017 we are already expecting the next generation of students.

Our gratitude goes first to the generous sponsors and to the scholars who support the Refugee Scholarship Network financially and/or with their names and public contributions. Carolina Mojto is providing the BOX Freiraum as off-campus event and work space whenever we need it; Orwa Nyrabia is giving advice and helps by just being there with his knowledge and experience; Priya Basil and Caroline Drucker have contributed translations, Lena Maculan, the „Wir machen das“ people, René Schlott and Julia Erdogan of the Center for Contemporary History have helped with public relations; Xenion e.V. with psychological support; and many others by giving advice and with networking. Above all I personally thank the team at Bard for bringing the „Program for International Education and Social Change“ into being and implementing it with incessant enthusiasm, educational idealism and care: Susan Gillespie, Kerry Bystrom, Bendetta Roux, Catherine Toal, Florian Becker, Xenia Muth, Jakub Deuretzbacher and others; and of course the wonderful students, who remind us every day and every hour how worthwhile and rewarding it is to fight for a better future in the endangered world of today.

Bard College Berlin
IBAN: DE51 7002 0270 0002 4858 18
Payment Reference: „Scholarship Network“