In the back of a building in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighbourhood, two 25-year-olds are building what could become the world's biggest university. Kiron, an online educational institute thought up by Markus Kressler and Vincent Zimmer, is the first university for refugees and displaced persons.
I meet Markus in the Kiron office – part of a two-story co-working space called the Social Impact Lab – one afternoon in early October. He'd been up working until 05.30 and was in the office again by 10.00, but it's impossible to tell. Even with refugee crisis defining public discourse over the last months, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't about trying to make some fast cash off the subject that everyone is talking about. He's calm and eloquent and leads me patiently through the office while explaining how Kiron works. A cool antidote to the hyperventilating start-up bros swanning around the rest of the space.
"Access to education in Germany and across the world is particularly problematic for refugees," Markus explains. "Refugees applying for asylum are forbidden from working, which often extends to applying for education courses. Meanwhile lost papers and records often make it impossible to apply for university places without a long bureaucratic nightmare."
Kiron is run by around 70 volunteers worldwide, but only 15 of them are in the bustling Berlin office on the day Markus and I meet. Even though the first semester hasn't even begun yet, there's a sense of organised chaos about Kiron's headquarters. The telephone is ringing off the hook, volunteers come and go and journalists seem to arrive in shifts.
Markus sits in the middle of it all, face buried in a laptop, staff circled around him, setting up bank account structures for incoming donations and contributions from international companies. An average day will start early, with a radio interview, followed by a non-stop stream of meetings and presentations – all the while trying to coordinate a group of people operating in multiple different timezones simultaneously. He works long into the night and early hours on weekdays while his weekends are mostly spent travelling to conferences around the globe with Kiron co-founder, Vincent Zimmer.
The key to understanding why people are so opposed to asylum seekers is to try to understand the kind of world they themselves grew up in.
For Kressler, the key to understanding why people are so opposed to asylum seekers is to try to understand the kind of world they themselves grew up in. "I come from a village where nobody would be throwing a welcome party for refugees but there definitely wouldn't be riots against them either," he says. "My parents were actually refugees themselves. They fled to West Germany as soon as the Wall came down."
The situation for East German refugees in the West was in many ways not so different than that of those coming from Syria and the Balkans today. Markus recalls: "My parents also had the problem of unemployment because they didn't have an apartment; and they didn't get an apartment because they had no work. Friends let us register in their house so that my father could find work. And that's how they got their new life going. They managed but it wasn't easy.
After he left school, Markus moved to Mannheim to study. It was at the end of one semester, on his way home from a party with a friend, that he met Kabuko. Kabuko was a refugee from Gambia, who had arrived in Germany via a turbulent journey through Tenerife and Spain. He was lost, with nowhere to go. Markus and his friend took him into their apartment for half a year. Kabuko was smart – he'd been educated in Gambia but had left because of hopeless prospects. Still he wasn't allowed to go to university in Germany.
"There are people out there that are full of potential but have absolutely no chance of partaking in this life," he says. "Kabuko had to work hourly jobs while we were being supported by our parents. You can't escape noticing that when the person lives in the next room from yours." Before setting up Kiron, he worked as an intern at a consulting firm. "I actually had fun all day at work," he says. "But at night I'd go home and ask myself about whether it actually meant anything. As long as there are these kinds of living conditions on earth, I don't want to sell luxury apartments or help giant pharmaceutical companies get even bigger."
Markus' business partner Vincent on the other hand comes from the tech startup world. His business model is simple: "Start up, get big, sell off." But even to him, this project is different – it's not a capitalist venture like his others. "I hope to still be working on this in 20 years time," Vincent says.
Our primary focus isn't the degree – we want to create an ecosystem that offers education to refugees.
"Kiron is much more than an online university – it's a non-governmental, non-profit organisation that will provide a way for refugees and asylum seekers to integrate into society," Markus cuts in. "It will offer degrees in five areas that face a shortage of skilled workers: Computer sciences, engineering, business, architecture,and intercultural studies. However, our primary focus isn't the degree – we want to create an ecosystem that offers education to refugees," he says. Alongside their online training, he hopes that refugees and displaced persons can also find jobs and internships through the institution.
Kiron students will undergo one-year of general study, before moving to a speciality. If they stay on for two or three years, they will then be able to transfer to a partner university study. Lectures are offered in German, French, English and Arabic and Markus hopes that even if students aren't able to complete a full course, they will have at least picked up some language skills. "It will probably take many of them three or four or five years until they're ready to enter the third year of study," he says. "But if you've been studying in English for four years, take all of the German courses we offer, use all our apps and meet with others on our campus here or at partner universities, then that's probably an environment in which you can learn German better than you could at a normal language school."
Bold promises are common in the startup game and Kiron is no different. Yet the massive undertaking that Markus and his colleagues are trying to realise might actually come through. Germany has been hit hard with demographic changes, in particular an ageing population that is threatening its role as Europe's biggest economy and putting a massive strain on its welfare system. Well-educated people in Germany pay on average €22,000 a year in taxes. It's a logical solution to both the skills gap and the refugee crisis.
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So much so that it actually seems remarkable that nobody has had this idea before. The concept of Kiron is perfect for people who have the kind of living conditions that many refugees are forced into because it allows for a lot of flexibility, while simultaneously circumventing the bureaucratic nightmare of the German system. Markus describes the situation for refugees like this: "You get to Germany and the first thing you have to do is wait up to a year until you get an interview to even begin the process of applying for asylum. During this period, you're not allowed to take any courses. Then you take a language course, tormenting yourself for two years, all the time not knowing if you'll even be able to stay. Once you've finished that, you can go to a community college to get a high school diploma, which takes another year. Then you can apply to a German university, just to get rejected."
The UNHCR is constantly criticising the global barriers that are put in the way of refugees – from difficulties getting existing qualifications from their home countries recognised, to the person's legal status, to the limited number of places available for non-German students. Although the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) has existed since 1992, it only accepts a fraction of those who are capable of studying.
"At Kiron," Markus says, "You can start and take as much time as you want to finish. And with everything else is happening to you, at least you have an outlook, a goal – something to focus on. Even if you get deported, you could still try to go to school in Turkey, where we also have a partner university."
So far, over 100 universities have already decided to take part in Kiron's programme. But there are still criticisms, primarily from Germans concerned about the financial pressure on the state from an influx of new migrants. Markus shakes off the suggestion. "Kiron creates jobs in Germany," he says. "The only thing that could cost money is if someone becomes a criminal or requires medical services. But these are both things that education prevents in the long run."