German town turns to Syrian refugees to save its school

At the talent show in Golzow's elementary school, the highlight is a Syrian girl proudly singing a German pop hit to applause from her classmates.

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At the talent show in Golzow's elementary school, the highlight is a Syrian girl proudly singing a German pop hit to applause from her classmates.

The scene last week in the tiny town near the Polish border - population 870 - came a year after Golzow launched what principal Gaby Thomas calls an act of "mutual rescue." The school couldn't get together the 15 students needed to set up a first-grade class, and that had Mayor Frank Schuetz fearing for his town's future.

"If we had allowed this school to crumble away, we also would have had to accept families saying, 'you can't move to Golzow, your children will have to go to school somewhere else,'" he says.

In this thinly populated area of what was once communist East Germany, which has seen its population shrink since the reunification of Germany in 1990, "any infrastructure has very significant value."

So the town's leaders went to a migrant reception center in nearby Eisenhuettenstadt and persuaded two Syrian families to move to Golzow. They brought with them three children of school age - salvaging the school's first grade and taking on the challenge of settling into a peaceful but hardly cosmopolitan rural backwater.

Nour and Kamala, both 10, and Kamala's 9-year-old brother Bourhan, started school from scratch with younger Germans.

"Of course they didn't know Golzow at all, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into," Schuetz said. "But they saw a chance to get out of the strange situation of living in tents and were willing to move."

As Germany begins to integrate hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Arab world and beyond who arrived last year, Golzow offers a small-scale taste of success. A man from a nearby village who speaks Arabic helped in the early months but now the two Syrian families, who were joined in January by a third, are keen to speak German - even insist on doing so.

"If we had had a lot of time to think about what problems we could face, and lost ourselves in that, it maybe wouldn't have worked out so well," principal Thomas says. "We did a lot of things spontaneously, and the families were incredibly cooperative."

Halima Taha, 29, who moved to Golzow with husband Fadi Sayed Ahmed and their three children, has just started a part-time job as a translator at a home for refugees in a nearby town. Her work includes translating rental contracts for newcomers seeking a long-term place to live.

Taha's presence is invaluable because "she has arrived, she got support and now she lives in an apartment with her family," home director Jens Planeta says. "That takes a lot of people's fear away, and that is irreplaceable."

"I think this is a good opportunity," Taha says. At home, she adds, "my husband is always helping, people in Golzow are always helping too ... everyone helps here."

It's certainly a change of scene for the family, who come from Syria's coastal city of Latakia and spent a year in Turkey before moving on to Germany.

"Everything here is quiet, no war - good," Taha said.

There's a down side to that quietness, however, and it has a lot to do with why Golzow's leaders wanted to bring the families there.

"I was a real estate agent in Syria - very, very good work - and I don't know what I can do here. I must (find) different work, but that's OK," says Fadi, Taha's husband.

Golzow has lost nearly a third of its population since German reunification, a phenomenon seen in many parts of the east after communist-era industry and collective farms went out of business or downsized.

Real estate is not a booming business - in fact, taking in the families has helped the town tackle another concern by using some of its empty housing.

The dwindling population has taken a toll over the years on the school, which the town named "The Children of Golzow" in a nod to its main claim to fame, a documentary film project of the same name that followed a class of schoolchildren from 1961 to 2007.

"This small place is defined by this school," the mayor says.

At its peak, the school had up to 700 students. In 2008, however, it lost its top four grades and was reduced to an elementary school. It now has some 130 pupils. This year, town leaders say they have enough children for a first grade, though they're still waiting for the official green light.

When the newcomers started school last fall, teachers held workshops on the issue of flight and expulsion with the children, principal Thomas says - "because everyone's first question was, 'why are they here?' And then they knew why they're here."

The two Syrian mothers told her not to give their children special treatment, and at one point even complained that their children were speaking too much Arabic with each other, she adds.

Two of the Syrian children volunteered last week to perform at the school talent show. Nour, who's near-fluent in German after just a few months and says she wants to become a doctor, impressed her schoolmates by singing German pop duo Rosenstolz's "Ich bin ich" ("I am me").

Her parents, Mahmoud Alahmad Alhammash and Mervat Seikh Mohamed, proudly filmed their daughter.

"I'm happy - Nour is singing in German and Nour's a star," says her mother. Several months in Germany have allowed her to forget the war at home and their journey from Damascus via Libya.

"My family is staying here in Golzow - not going to Munich or Hamburg," says Alhammash. "Much better in Golzow."

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