July 11, 2017

Students travel to Germany to learn about refugee crisis

For students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, a volunteer experience at a refugee resettlement facility in Germany was the culmination of a semester-long study into the refugee crisis.

For students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, a volunteer experience at a refugee resettlement facility in Germany was the culmination of a semester-long study into the refugee crisis.

During the several days of volunteering in Germany, students connected with refugees from Syria

Hauling sand and learning Arabic are not on the typical agenda for a study abroad trip to Germany. For 17 students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, these volunteer experiences at a refugee resettlement facility were the culmination of their semester-long study into the refugee crisis and particularly its impact on Germany and Germany’s response.

Their studies began in October 2016 when Almut Lupkes and Claus Oellerking, two retired college-level instructors, administrators and founders of the nonprofit resettlement organization, Fluchtlingshilfe Schwerin from Schwerin, Germany, visited Duluth and provided workshops on the refugee situation in Germany.

During the workshops, students explored the effect and scope of immigrant integration projects in Germany, the response of local authorities and communities, and future challenges and opportunities involved in integrating immigrants into German society.

From these workshops, Dr. Lynn Goerdt, associate professor of social work at UW-Superior, spearheaded the creation of a multi-campus class during spring 2017 for social work and German studies students focused on immigrant and refugee needs and resettlement processes within the United States and Germany.

Goerdt collaborated with St Scholastic professors Dr. Connie Gunderson, associate professor of social work, Michelle Robertson, assistant professor of social work and Dr. Karen Rosenflenz, assistant professor of Russian and German, on the creation and implementation of the course.

Four UW-Superior, two UMD, and 11 St. Scholastica students participated in the class, completing online modules and discussions on the U.S. refugee resettlement process, conflicts around the world including Syria, and the history of social work in Germany among other topics.

To gain first-hand experience and to apply their learning, the class then traveled to Germany May 21 to June 2, 2017.

In Germany, students toured Berlin and various museums, visited two universities and volunteered with the Fluchtlingshilfe Schwerin nonprofit refugee resettlement organization.

During the several days of volunteering in Schwerin, students connected with refugees from Syria, heard their stories, worked alongside them in garden plots and hosted a picnic fundraiser.

“The time we spent with the refugees was the most valuable,” said Goerdt. “We developed relationships with people and we actually got to do something. We hauled sand for hours, bucket by bucket by bucket. We worked hard together.”

Part of Fluchtlingshilfe Schwerin’s strategy for assisting refugees’ integration is working with them to build gardens where refugees can plant and harvest vegetables native to their homeland.

Throughout the day, natural cultural exchanges were made. While working on the garden, students received informal Arabic lessons from one of the men helping. That evening, the group hosted a picnic fundraiser for the nonprofit.

“Two of our students taught some of the Syrian girls how to French braid their hair,” Goerdt said about the picnic.

As the students interacted with the organization, they learned about the various ways that Germany, through both the government and private citizens, integrates refugees into its country and about the barriers refugees face living successfully in a new country.

In addition to building garden plots, the nonprofit also works to partner community members with refugees as mentors to assist in day-to-day living and German language practice as well as being a friend and advocate.

Universities across Germany also are investing in language lessons and academic programs for refugees. Two of the universities the study abroad group visited offer German classes and other job training programs to provide refugees with a path to employment.  

The group ended their trip with a time of reflection.

“Our final product was we asked them to identify them what they were going to do next,” Goerdt said. Students were asked to think about and put together a plan for what they would do next based on their study abroad experience.

Students’ plans varied from sharing with friends and family to sharing at their church or university club to presenting at the St. Louis County Human Service Conference. One student was interested in being connected with a refugee resettlement organization in the Twin Cities to look into an app that pairs refugees with community members.

Goerdt is planning on offering the course and trip again this spring. This year the program was partially funded by a $10,363 grant through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) which paid for all lodging expenses and some rail expenses in Germany.

For students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, a volunteer experience at a refugee resettlement facility in Germany was the culmination of a semester-long study into the refugee crisis.

For students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, a volunteer experience at a refugee resettlement facility in Germany was the culmination of a semester-long study into the refugee crisis.

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