27 December 2013

Africa: Young Refugees From Africa Face Up to the Challenges of Life in Europe

After crossing numerous hurdles to reach Europe, many refugees from Africa think their arrival on European soil is the end to their struggles. They soon realise that many more challenges still lie ahead.

20 year-old Sara Mohamed sits in a class with ten other young refugees. Today's lesson is German. Wearing a long, dark headscarf, Sara jokes, laughs heartily and gives the correct answer to questions posed by the teacher. Looking at her, you would not know what she has been through to be in Germany today. At the age of 15 Sara left her home country Somalia to embark on a long and dangerous journey.

"I was very young and it was very hard for me but it is also sometimes an experience that one has to go through," she told DW. She said she took the decision to leave her home country because of the insecurity there.

In 1991 a civil war broke out in Somalia after the country's long serving military government was overthrown. Insurgents and terrorists wreaked havoc, causing many Somalis to fear for their lives and seek a new life elsewhere, despite the risks.

One of the lucky ones

Sara travelled through Sudan and the Sahara desert and then boarded a boat in Libya with over 150 other refugees. She did not have enough money for the fare but was helped by other refugees from Somalia. Their destination was Europe.

The boat carrying Sara and the others made it to Lampedusa, the small island off the coast of Italy that is the destination for thousands of refugees every year. Sara is thankful that she made it to the shore unlike the many others who perish in the attempt.

"There were people I know and who used to sit near me in the Sahara and in Libya and these people took other boats but died on the way. It is a very dangerous journey," she told DW.

In October 2013, more than 360 refugees died when their fishing boat capsized off the shore of Lampedusa - many of them Somalis and Eritreans. Sick and without money, Sara lived on the streets in Italy until she made her way through Sweden and on to Germany. She now lives in a youth home in Munich with other young refugees.

According to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Germany, Somalia is one of the top ten countries from which the most asylum applications are received. Many of the applicants are young and unaccompanied.

Uche Akpulu was himself a refugee from Nigeria. He has now been living for over ten years in Germany and works for the Bavarian Refugee Council (Bayerischer Flüchtlingsrat). He told DW that most refugees "do not have a legal residence permit during the asylum process and they live under very, very terrible conditions." Overcrowding is common and refugees are not allowed to work to add to the small amount of state support they receive.

Learning to have a life of their own

The Bavarian Refugee Council was founded to draw attention to the situation of refugees and lobby for better living conditions for them. Even though Sara Mohamed now has a home and a small amount of financial support from the government, she still does not have a residence permit after three years in Germany.

Every weekday, she joins other young refugees to attend classes at the SchlaU school in Munich. SchlaU stands for Schulanaloger Unterricht, identifying it as a supplementary school within Germany's education system. The project was launched in 2000 by social worker Michael Stenger.

Thirteen years on, what started as a language school has grown into a real school that also teaches other subjects required for students wanting to take German secondary school examinations. Over 220 refugees between the ages of 16 and 25 from over 73 countries attend classes at SchlaU. Upon arriving in Germany without their families, many of them are shocked by the reality of life as refugees.

"The biggest wish of our students are that they finally have a life of their own again," head teacher Melanie Weber told DW. "They want to acquire all the skills that one needs to live in a country like Germany."

This is also Sarah's wish. "It is really important for me to learn the language so I can understand the people and be well integrated," she said. Going back to Somalia is not an option for her.

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