How Three Germans and a Venture Capitalist Hope to Integrate Europe’s Refugees

Sajida had just begun her university education at the Engineering Technical Institute in Damascus when the bombs began to fall. It was November 2014, and the 19 -year-old fled with her family to Turkey, where she worked in a garb factory, a Syrian restaurant, and a library before eventually getting the chance to travel to Greece.

The water was up to my neck, she says, recounting a struggle to reach the dinghy that would take her across a narrow strait to the island of Lesbos. Alternating among trains, buses, and simply walking, Sajida and her older sister eventually stimulated their style to Germany. As she describes her trek, Sajida is viciously concise about the ordeal refugees like her must endure, particularly when braving unforgiving seas. It was frightening, she says.

Once Sajida reached Western Europe, she had another problem. A year or more may pass before refugees can attain the legal status and speech fluency needed to continue their education at a German university. In the meantime, they must wait to complete schooling that, in her occurrence, began more than a year ago and 1,700 miles away.

A group of three German friends in their twenties saw this languishing group of potential students as an opportunity. They generated Kiron, a free online learning platform especially for refugees. Sajida( who, like other refugees, asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family) is one of more than 1,250 students who signed up for its classes, which are taught in English.

Kirons founders have raised more than 3 million ($ 3.3 million) from a crowdfunding campaign as well as from private and corporate donors ranging from Google Inc. to BMW. The trio aims to fill a gap of otherwise wasted timeduring which refugees can develop skills or earn degrees that could help them acclimate to their new country, or prepare for the day when they can return home.

Kiron, which entails ray of light in Sanskrit, combinings online college courses developed by U.S. organizations including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with volunteer profs and mentors who can be thousands of miles away. They grade assignments, answer questions, and maintain students on track. For those housed in refugee camps without internet connections or computers, Kiron is setting up learning hubs, which are basically remote classrooms, with donated laptops and internet access.

While other programs exist to train refugees for jobs or in the German speech, Kiron is unique because it enrolls them in for-credit classes that can lead toward a college degree, says Tim Goebel, executive director for a foundation started by Hans Schoepflin, a venture capitalist and Kirons biggest single donor.

They are tackling a number of problems that nobody else has: how to integrate refugees into the university system, Goebel says.

Sajida, who sharpened her English by watching American television proves like So You Believe You Can Dance, jumped at what Kiron has to offer. Im super happy to be studying, she says, dressed in a white hijab and a gray leopard-print blouse as she chats merrily near one of Berlins main boulevards, Unter Den Linden. I feel like Im back on track.

Refugees dont require motivation

Kirons course offerings are easily accessed on the web and can accommodate large numbers of participants. Developed in the U.S. several years ago, these massive open online courses( or MOOCs) offer a way for anyone to experience a college course, which can be useful on a rsum or simply complement a current undertaking. But only about 15 percent of students who sign up for MOOCs finish them, according to research by Katy Jordan, a Ph.D. student at the Open University, an online school based in the U.K.

Kiron has sought to change this dynamic, working with brick-and-mortar schools to translate these courses into credit that could be applied toward a certain degree. Refugee students are far more diligent than most, says Markus Kressler, Kirons 26 -year-old co-founder. If you have no alternative, its a different situation, he says.

Kiron co-founder Markus Kressler at the group’s offices .
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/ Bloomberg