The greatest difficulty of moving abroad for education was being away from my family. However, having a host family that provided hospitality, understanding, and interest facilitated in bridging the gaps between my culture and the German one, and to ease my integration into the community. Successful stories of integration extend further to include thousands of asylum applicants who seek refuge in Germany. The experiences to be learned from my story can also be applied for asylum seekers.
I moved to Germany at the age of 17. I was emotionally and financially supported by my family, but I was alone in a country whose language I could not understand and whose norms were very different to my own. I moved to Germany to pursue my bachelor education in Biochemical Engineering at an International university called Jacobs University Bremen. Upon arrival, an orientation week was organized to encourage new students to get to know each other, to discover the neighborhood, and to take care of official matters including opening a bank account, obtaining a residence permit, and choosing health insurance. University volunteers at the Student Service Center provided further support and information on local events.
What I was missing, however, was the presence of my family, and the host family program at Jacobs University offered just that. I met my host parents; or rather host grandparents, on the first month upon my arrival. Ulla and Gerd had already hosted a Nepali student for three years before me. They had done this on a completely voluntary basis, motivated by the fact that they lived close to the university and were retired, and could therefore contribute to the community by assisting in the integration of new students. They had decided that they were already too old to host another student, but after learning that a 17-year-old Palestinian girl was going to arrive, they had decided to take up on this opportunity for one last time. I could not be happier that they did.
The arrangement is such that Bachelor students live on campus in residential colleges with other students and arrange to privately meet with their assigned host parents if both parties wish to do so. I met my host parents at least once a month, sometimes more depending on my workload and their schedule. I was surprised to learn that the 70-year old couple was fitter than I was; for instance, they completed a biking trip of nearly 450km each year with a group of their friends. Unfortunately, sports are not given as much priority among the older generation in my society, despite its mental and physical benefits being heavily sought after by the younger generation.
My host parents were crucial for my happiness in Bremen; we often took weekend trips to our surroundings, visited museums, and enjoyed ‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ (cake and coffee) time together. They were also present in times of need; for instance, when I had an accident during football practice and they accompanied me to my physiotherapy sessions. My host parents hosted me over Easter when I met their grandchildren, invited me to my first opera, introduced me to candied ginger and to my favorite soup (pumpkin). They familiarized me with German promptness and made it a point not to miss any important event, including academic award ceremonies and finally my graduation. About two years into our relationship, Ulla and Gerd started to communicate with me in German to help further my language skills (similarly their English improved a lot through our exchange too).
As relationships improved, some host families were invited to visit their students’ home countries and respective families. Ulla has traveled to Palestine as part of a group tour, has met my parents and has seen where I grew up. My host parents have also traveled to Nepal to visit the family of the student they had previously hosted.
I am happy that I can always rely on my German host parents, even nine years after we first met. Of the other students who were also paired up with host parents, I have heard many more success stories than I have failures. Currently, almost half of the nearly 1,200 Jacobs students have a host family.
In 2017, approximately 222,000 asylum applicants were recorded in Germany. Many immigrants that arrive in Germany are from Syria and other conflict zones. I can only imagine what benefits an experience such as the one I had would result in. It only requires a family to open its doors and hearts, and to be ready to embrace difference. Such a small step can help many people to integrate and contribute better to society.
Germany has implemented several strategies to ensure successful integration, including providing basic education; courses to explain cultural norms, integration courses (including language classes and civic education), psychological support, community and church-hosted events, as well as work opportunities. Recent reports, particularly those published by the Institute for Employment Research, show that the implemented strategies have been successful especially for the integration of Syrian refugees, and that further contribution promises to be a worthwhile financial investment. However, most asylum applicants live in initial reception centers (often converted hostels or former army barracks) and those with good chances are moved into community homes (collective accommodation) and then ultimately into private apartments.
Children and women fare especially well. However, about two thirds of asylum applicants are men who struggle due to being alone, missing the social status they grew up with, and being disappointed by the work they find. Asylum seekers often suffer trauma, fear, and/or depression, and would require psychological support (1). Sometimes the one thing that stands between them and their mental health can be a friendly face that provides emotional stability and security while they wait for asylum or deportation.
If you are from a European country that is accepting asylum seekers, think about the change you could make if you become a friend to a refugee. You don’t need to invite them into your own home. There are numerous examples of successful collaborations and success stories, and the efforts of everyone involved should be lauded. Different organized groups of volunteers, such as Kaufbeuren’s refugee volunteer network or Salam-Kultur, have also been established to help refugees in finding housing and jobs, navigating the bureaucracy, and in practicing their language skills. Some volunteers have even accommodated refugees in their flats and invited them to social events and concerts.
In order to encourage these efforts, I think a nation-wide centralized program should be put in place that offers the opportunity of a host family to a refugee; both parties would need to actively and voluntarily participate, with the promise of benefit for both sides. A host family would have the chance to interact with a young person from a different cultural background, to improve their language skills, and to experience daily activities with a different perspective. Host families of students from Jacobs University have expressed their pleasant surprise at discovering new sides of their city, at being reminded not to take ‘normal’ things for granted, and at the possibility of experiencing a new piece of the world whilst still in their comfort zone.
- Lindert J. et al., “Refugees mental health – A public mental health challenge”, The European Journal of Public Health. 2016