Germany: Mama lernt Deutsch

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jun 13 14:39:03 UTC 2008

[image: The New York Times] <>

June 13, 2008
Frankfurt Journal
Classroom Door Gives Immigrants an Entry to Society By SOUAD MEKHENNET

FRANKFURT — The first four years after Sara Tahir moved to
she barely left her home because she could not speak the language. "I didn't
want to take a single step without my husband, even to the gynecologist. He
had to go with me and translate," she said, turning red with shame just at
the memory. Women like Mrs. Tahir, a 27-year-old immigrant from Morocco, are
one focus of the integration battle in Germany and the rest of Europe over
the continent's immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries. Unable
to speak the language, they find it all but impossible to interact with
society. Worse still, their German-born children are more inclined to
inherit their isolation, building the walls of what critics call a parallel

But now, Mrs. Tahir speaks German well enough to go shopping alone and takes
buses and the subway by herself. She deals with government authorities and
banks. And she meets with her daughter's teachers at least once a month.
That is because twice a week Mrs. Tahir packs her German-Arabic dictionary,
language workbook and a notebook in her light brown school bag and goes with
her daughter Kawtal to the Albert Schweitzer primary school in the
Frankfurter Berg neighborhood here, once home to families of American
soldiers and now home to large numbers of immigrants. "She goes to her class
and I go to mine," Mrs. Tahir said.

Her class is part of a simple language program here in the German state of
Hesse that has spread to several other German states and has even been
adopted nationwide in Austria. Mama Lernt Deutsch, or Mama Learns German,
shows that often a successful integration program needs little other than a
few small steps to accommodate the needs of the students. The home of
Germany's leading stock exchange and the European Central
Frankfurt is best known as an international business hub, filled with
serious Germans in chalk-striped suits driving Porsches. But the city also
has a thriving immigrant community. Of Frankfurt's more than 600,000
residents, almost every third person living here does not hold a German
passport, and many of the most isolated are women like Mrs. Tahir.

"We were brainstorming about how to reach out to these women, discussing the
problems and trying to find a solution," said Marianne Spohner of the Office
for Multicultural Affairs in Frankfurt. Few immigrant mothers were attending
language classes, which tended to be co-educational and often took place in
the afternoons and early evenings, when the children they had to care for
were at home. The formula the officials came up with was simple, and
designed to meet the needs of the mothers. Classes are taught during the day
when the children are at school, and the mothers have some precious free
time. There is child care for babies and toddlers.

And, though difficult at first for many Germans to grasp, no men are allowed
in the classes, even as teachers, so as not to offend those with strict
Muslim beliefs. This was practical and not just symbolic. Teachers and
administrators say that many husbands chaperone their wives to the first few
classes to keep an eye out for other men. "Our objective must be to reach
women who live in social isolation and help them to speak German," said
Armin Laschet, the minister responsible for integration in the state of
North Rhine-Westphalia, which supports Mama Lernt Deutsch courses in several
communities. "And if we achieve this goal by teaching women and men
separately, than that is O.K."

At $235, the courses are not cheap. Yet nearly 13,000 women have attended
one in the state of Hesse in the 10 years they have been offered. For all
the program's success, the federal government has not chosen to underwrite
it nationwide. "Here we have a very good way to reach out to those that the
government wants to integrate, but they don't want to finance it," says Omid
Nouripour, a member of the German Parliament and spokesman for the Migration
Working Group of the Green
"It's a mistake."

In Frankfurter Berg, north of the city center, where Mrs. Tahir lives and
attends the program, working-class families, many with immigrant
backgrounds, pack 1960s-era high-rise apartment buildings. The area has
large numbers of people from Eritrea, Sri Lanka and North Africa. Detlef
Lack, principal at the Schweitzer school here, said that more than 40
percent of the children came from immigrant backgrounds. "I had situations,
where colleagues were angry, because mothers did not answer letters or come
to meetings, and I told the teachers, 'You should ask yourself why they are
not answering.' Maybe they can't," Mr. Lack said.

Indeed, Rahwa Weldekidan, an immigrant from Eritrea now attending the class,
said she would throw letters that arrived in German in the trash because she
could not read them. When her children were older, they would translate for
her, Ms. Weldekidan said.Principals and teachers report that the mothers
enrolled in the Mama Lernt Deutsch program meet with them more often and
participate in other school activities more frequently. Most important,
teachers also report that children with mothers who attend the course are
starting to do much better in school.

The students also go on excursions to museums and historical sites in
Frankfurt, like Goethe's birthplace and the Dom, the city's famous church.
Gerlinde Thomala, the teacher of the Mama Lernt Deutsch class at the
Schweitzer school, recalled how one Muslim woman's eyes widened inside the
Dom and she told her it was the first time she had been inside a church.
Like several of the women, Svjetlana Vucic, an immigrant from Bosnia, said
she had no contact with Germans before meeting her teacher. "Before I
attended this class, I always cried at home and asked myself, 'Why did I
come here?' " Ms. Vucic said. "Today, I know that there are also friendly

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