Study, and then go home: That has been the plan for foreign students for many years. But the civil war in their country has Syrian students in Germany worried about their future.
Over a dozen Syrian students have gathered in front of the main building of the University of Cologne. They are staging a flash mob - an unannounced gathering - to draw attention to the violence that continues to ravage Syria.
Like a group of artists, the students re-enact scenes of daily life from Syria: one young man kneels down while another presses a gun against his head; a woman holds a bleeding baby in her arms; two men in uniform harass a journalist. One of the students hands out flyers with information about Syria and its regime.
Hardly anyone walking past actually stops - most of the other students simply rush by trying to escape the drizzle that has set in, or continue on their way to the next lecture.
There are 43 Syrians enrolled at the university; since the beginning of 2012 some of them have become involved with the "Free Syrian Students," as the group calls itself.
"Only about half participate," said Alan Jarwich, "The others are afraid that if they become politically active here could put pressure on their families in Syria."
Jarwich is one of the activists - and a medical student, like many of the around 2,300 Syrians who come to Germany to study. And as with most of the others, stress over the situation at home threatens to become overwhelming, Jarwich said.
Challenging lessons and bad news from home
On the one hand, Jarwich said, there is the challenging course of studies in a language he is not yet completely at ease with, but that's not all he contends with.
"On top of that, there's the psychological strain: What happens in Syria, always pains us. The videos we find on the internet are horrible, and the news is bad," he said.
No matter whether it is through Facebook, Twitter, news on the Internet or on TV, Jarwich and his friends are always confronted with the same questions: What's happening back at home? How is my family? How are my friends? Contacting them via the internet or on the telephone doesn't always work - and when it does, people at home are often afraid to talk freely. It's a permanent distraction his studies are suffering from. "For the past two semesters I was practically unable to study anything," Jarwich said.
Many students have also run out of money. For the most part, they come from families that were initially able to fund their sons' and daughters' education abroad. But now things have changed; with the new situation in Syria, Ahmad Alrawi's family, too, is no longer able to send money: "I haven't received any support for half a year now," he said.
For Alrawi and his peers the only option is to take on a job - no matter how demanding their studies may be. They are allowed to work a maximum of 90 days per year, as they are supposed to swiftly complete their studies in Germany. At regular intervals they have to give proof to the authorities that they have enough money to fund their daily expenses as well as their studies, which they have to complete in less than 20 semesters.
Flexible solutions for Syrian students
Karl-Heinz Korn, of the International Students' Office at the University of Cologne, said these rules exist to prevent students from "falling into the German welfare safety net." But when some Syrian students earlier this year were no longer able to pay rent, health insurance and other bills, Korn took action: He asked those responsible for at the university to take the exceptional situation of Syrian students into consideration in examinations. That's because after three failed attempts, an examination at the University of Cologne may not be repeated, which can end an academic career. Several departments then agreed to be more flexible and generous to the Syrians.
The German government decreed a temporary stop to deportations. "Even with poor academic performance, Syrians are not currently being deported - this is something they don't have to worry about," Korn said.
Funds have also been made available to bridge emergency situations. The Foreign Ministry gave 1 million euros ($1.32 million) and the German Academic Exchange Service put up 500,000 euros to a fund to help Syrian students at German universities. The funds were distributed through the universities where the Syrians are enrolled.
These funds will be exhausted in February 2013 and what follows remains unclear. What Alan Jarwich and his classmates hope for is a permanent solution for the subsequent period. But even more than that, he said, they hope "that the regime in Syria falls."
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