Talking with the German President
At Freie Universität President Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with students and researchers who came to Berlin as refugees.
Dec 18, 2017
Dahlem was the last stop of his official inaugural visit to the state of Berlin. In mid-October, at the end of a long day that started early in the morning at the wheel of a subway, German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Freie Universität Berlin. He had requested an opportunity to meet with students and researchers who had come to Germany as refugees and are now studying or working at various universities in Berlin. “Our university was founded as a result of political persecution and increasing moves to eliminate academic freedom,” said Professor Peter-André Alt, the president of Freie Universität, “so I could not imagine a more appropriate place for this event.”
In addition to the Governing Mayor of Berlin Michael Müller, the president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Professor Sabine Kunst, and the president of Technische Universität Professor Christian Thomsen, graduates of the welcome programs for refugees organized by the Berlin universities were invited to attend. All of them come from Syria, where they had started their studies or an academic career, which they then had to interrupt because of the political situation. In his former role as the Federal Foreign Minister of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier had dealt intensively with the war in Syria and its consequences. He said, “While I was the German Foreign Minister, I dealt with how to make it easier for refugees to arrive in Europe and get settled. I discovered that many people had started academic careers at home. It would be unfortunate, if not to say irresponsible, if they didn’t have an opportunity to continue their studies and work here.” At that time the German Foreign Office set up the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which provides fellowships for research institutions in Germany to accept endangered scholars and scientists for a limited period of time.
Two fellows from the program, Mohamed Ali Mohamed and Yaser Hantouch, who both worked at the University of Aleppo, took part in the discussion in Dahlem. Mohamed Ali Mohamed is now a research associate at the Geography Department at Humboldt-Universität, and Yaser Hantouch, an architect who holds a PhD, does research at Technische Universität Berlin.
Other attendees were students, many of whom had participated in one of the welcome programs offered by the universities in Berlin. Muhammed Al Zeen is from Damascus and was in the Welcome@FUBerlin program offered by Freie Universität. Now he is enrolled in a degree program in English and political science and wants to become a teacher. He also teaches English in a special welcome class for refugees at a school in the Berlin district of Zehlendorf. The young Syrian felt very honored to speak personally with the German Federal President and his wife Elke Büdenbender. As he said later, “In my home country, I never once experienced that high-ranking government officials dealt personally with issues that move the country.” Raghad Koko, who is from Aleppo and currently in her third semester of studying computer science at Freie Universität, was also very impressed by the exchange with President Steinmeier. She said, “My work is valued more highly in Germany than at home. I think if you try to do something here, you can achieve your goals.” Besides Koko and Al Zeen, two other students were also invited to the meeting: Wael Amayri from Freie Universität and Elmedin Sopa from Humboldt-Universität. Amayri, who is 22, learned German so fast by attending language classes through the Welcome@FU program and practicing one-to-one with a language exchange partner through a tandem program that he was able to enroll in a regular degree program in computer science within less than one year. Sopa is a board member of the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin, which offers asylum seekers free legal advice.
Other attendees included Sawsan Chebli, who is one of Berlin’s representatives in the German Bundesrat (Federal Council) and State Secretary for Civic Engagement and Intercultural Affairs in the Berlin state government, and Steffen Krach, State Secretary for Science and Research.
The presidents of the three major Berlin universities – Peter-André Alt, Sabine Kunst, and Christian Thomsen – presented their respective programs for refugee students and researchers. They all stressed that the emotional burden can be very great for individuals who have to flee their homeland, which makes their achievements particularly noteworthy because in the end they have to meet the same requirements as other applicants.
President Steinmeier asked the refugees about the challenges they had encountered in Berlin and how the special programs offered by the universities and the personal commitment of individual members of the universities had helped their academic integration in Germany. One of the participants said that his experiences showed him that there are countries where human rights are worth something. For the time being, most of the students and researchers would like to stay in Germany longer, as they cannot return to Syria due to the political situation. Some of them could imagine returning in the long run, but only after the war there is over – for example, to help rebuild their country.