English lessons for refugees: Interview with Silke Georgi

Silke Georgi runs GSBTB’s English lessons for refugees on Wednesday nights. Here’s an English translation of an interview she did for ImmobilienScout 24, which kindly lends us their office space for the lessons every week.

Since February, English lessons for refugees are given on Wednesday evenings in the facilities of ImmobilienScout 24. Silke Georgi, responsible for Fundraising and International Affairs at the organisation Social Heroes, originates from the U.S. She gives lessons in her English mother tongue as a part of her activities supporting the organisation Give Something Back To Berlin (GSBTB).

Give something back to your new home town, Berlin. That’s the motto as well as the name of the Give Something Back To Berlin (GSBTB) organisation. Since 2013 the social organisation brings non-German-speaking Berliners-by-choice ‒ migrants from developed countries as well as refugees ‒ together with other people living in the German capital to move various projects ahead and to lobby for a peaceful, intercultural society.

A great number of successful GSBTB projects show that the concept catches on. Recently, the initiative won the main prize of the Intercultural Innovation Award from BMW Group and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). Since 2011, the prize has been awarded every year to ten innovative social projects that promote dialogue and intercultural understanding.

The English lessons given by Silke and other voluntary teachers are one of GSBTB’s projects. As the Social Heroes office has found room in the ImmobilienScout24 building it seemed natural to Silke to ask the company for facilities to follow her GSBTB activities.

Hello Silke. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us about your activities for the GSBTB organisation. What made you contribute to GSBTB’s projects?

When I had just arrived in Berlin I wanted to get to know people and commit myself to a social cause. I thought that my knowledge of the English language could be both useful and help me meet other people. For about two years I have been teaching English to refugees. We started lessons at a location on Kaiserdamm and have now found the facilities at ImmobilienScout24.

How did the English lessons come to be held here?

Lessons take place every Wednesday night for two hours. At first we met in a community room at a refugee accommodation on Kaiserdamm where we were frequently struggling with the amount of noise. Since the accommodation is a place of initial reception many people left after a couple of months. Some time ago I thought that we needed a place where people from other accommodation can also join us. Somewhere central and well-known. I asked Mareen Walus, member of the Cares-Team at ImmobilienScout24, whether we could hold the lessons in their conference rooms that are free in the evenings.

What has changed since you can use the facilities here?

Quite a lot. There is a completely different atmosphere in calm, nice rooms, which exudes integrity, respect and belonging. The students feel welcome here. New teachers and students keep joining us. My loyal students who have been coming to my lessons for some time already and know that something good is happening here invite other people. They pass on the message. That’s the best publicity: refugees who know that they are well cared for here and spread the news.

When thinking about language lessons for refugees many people primarily think of German. What is your students’ motivation for learning English?

Most of them already attend German lessons. Some are still waiting to be allocated to a course. Up to now there have mostly been students who already speak English and thought: Until my German is good enough to make myself understandable, I would like to improve my English. Some do not know about their future and whether they will be allowed to stay here or not. English helps you everywhere at all times. Some would like to study and know that it will take some time until their German is good enough to communicate at an academic level. So they improve their English since there are many English courses at universities. There are many different motivations. For some, the lessons just mean two hours per week during which they are taken seriously at eye level and can learn something. In addition, it is important for them to meet other people.

What kind of students come to your lessons?

Most of them are in their mid to late twenties, practically all men. Many women of that age have children they need to care for. But now I have a pupil who comes with her daughter. That goes smoothly. Their educational background is actually quite good. The knowledge of language and grammar they acquired at school surprises me time and again. And so do the topics they want to discuss: politics, world affairs or Germany and Angela Merkel. At times it can be frustrating that their intelligence is much greater than their capability to express their ideas in English. They would like to talk and discuss all the time so that now and again I must rein them in and shift their focus to the language.

Did you have previous teaching experience?

Not much. I educated my children multilingually and gained some experience doing this. You actually never know who will show up for the lessons. The new location here has certainly improved the situation. However, classes can differ from week to week. Some of the students might not have any English skills at all while others are practically fluent. Even though I am an English native there are some grammar topics I need to look up. This helps me to improve my own proficiency.

What are the best moments for you?

There are so many nice and grateful people. The ambiance is always good when we meet. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, when we have too few teachers and too many students. But that’s all OK. Some Wednesday evenings I think that I would rather go home because I am tired. I ask myself whether I really have to go. But after the lessons I am always happy. There are people from countries I know nothing about. For instance, I hear stories of Iraq before the war, what people eat in Somalia, how Pakistanis love to play cricket, or Islam. These talks are immensely interesting. Time and again I am astonished by how much the students already know about Germany and our culture ‒ and sometimes about what they don’t know. If, for instance, somebody doesn’t know who Mark Zuckerberg is I must crawl out of my own bubble in which this knowledge is a given thing.

What I also like about my job is seeing new friendships develop. I have a small group that I know a little better than others and that I accompany with tips about where to go or where to meet new people. We also meet outside of the lessons. As a result, I might be invited to birthday parties or Syrian meals. By this I have gathered new friends and experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Thank you very much for the interesting interview.

Original interview by Dana Sobczak. Translation to English by Manuela Kießl.