16.11.2023 | Porträts und Geschichten

From Fear to Confidence – learning German at Uni Kassel

Many people had to flee from Ukraine to Germany last year. How are they doing today? We spoke to three women.

"Du fährst in die Heimat                             

Und alles wird irgendwie kleiner             

Und irgendwie leiser                                 

Du fährst in die Heimat                          

Nach so langer Zeit und                         

Auf einmal vergleichst du                      

Den, der hier weggeht                            

Mit dem, der du jetzt bist"                   


"You travel to your homeland

And everything becomes smaller somehow

And quieter somehow

You travel to your homeland

After such a long time and

Suddenly you compare

The one who leaves this place

With who you are now"


"Alle Fragen" by AnnenMayKantereit is only one of Anna's favourite German songs: "I see myself in the lyrics," she says, taking a sip of black tea. Those who embark on a journey to a foreign country often face challenges. However, for those who have to hastily pack their bags to escape their homeland due to war, it is even more difficult. Anna (19), Yulia (36), and Lisa (20) experienced exactly that. In the spring of 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they had to leave their hometowns Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa. Today, they live in Kassel and attend a language course at the International Study Centre (ISZ) / Language Centre of the University of Kassel.

"I could hardly speak a word of German when I arrived."

We are meeting for coffee on campus. Finding a suitable time was not easy because even after their 9 am – 1:15 pm course, the three women have to study for several hours every day. Kassel seems quite small to them, they tell me – after all, they come from cities with over a million inhabitants. Nevertheless, they feel at ease here; Yulia even wants to stay permanently with her eight-year-old daughter. When the two of them arrived in Kassel, a pastor's family initially took them in. The family had little space available but cleared the small pastor's office for the mother and child. "I am infinitely grateful and still a little amazed at how generous and welcoming they were towards us." For some time now, the two of them have been living in their own apartment. Yulia's daughter attends a German school and has adapted well to their situation: "She learned German much faster than I did!" Yulia holds a doctorate in law. In the future, she hopes to become a professor—perhaps even at a German university. The language barrier poses a significant challenge for her on this journey, but Yulia is optimistic: "I could hardly speak a word of German when I arrived. At the ISZ, when they found out that I have a doctoral degree, they encouraged me to start directly with the B1 course," meaning a course at a higher language level. At first, she had doubts, "but then I thought: if they trust me with this, then I trust myself, too. Now I know it was the right decision."

All three women are well versed in the German musical world

For Anna, too, learning German has been a leap into the unknown. Additionally, she often finds it challenging to concentrate on studying due to the war in her home country: "I think about it often and worry a lot." At 19, she is the youngest of the three women. She came to Germany with her mother. Initially, they lived in a shelter, later they were also taken in by a family. Before the war broke out, Anna studied journalism in Kyiv. She is currently on a break semester, during which she aims to deepen her journalistic skills in Kassel. In April, she did an internship at the news portal Nordhessen-Rundschau and wrote her first press releases – in German, of course. Anna has a few tips for learning German: "Speaking German in everyday life, watching German TV series, and, of course, music have helped me a lot to improve my everyday German and learn more about German culture." All three women are well versed in the German musical world: Lisa likes German Christian pop worship-bands, Anna prefers folk, and Yulia's favourites include Apache 207, Peter Fox, and Luna.

Unlike the other two women, Lisa already knew some German when she arrived in Kassel in the spring of last year because she studied German as a subject in Odessa to become a teacher. Nevertheless, she mostly spoke English upon her arrival, for fear of making mistakes. "I quickly dropped that, though. You cannot live here without speaking the language. I also noticed that people usually understand, even if you don't express yourself perfectly." In Kassel, she enrolled as an exchange student for the teaching subjects German and English. Even Germans sometimes do not speak flawlessly, she has learned: "There is a trend, for example, to replace the genitive case with the dative, which I found very confusing at first." Like the other women, Lisa was initially accommodated privately, and now she lives in a shared flat with several other Ukrainian students. "Germans are very nice, but forming real friendships with them is difficult." In the future, she wants to enrol at a German University as a regular student in her two teaching subjects and eventually work as a teacher in Germany.

"My favourite lecturer always prepares small competitions or games for us."

In order to reach this goal she must overcome one key obstacle: international students must first successfully pass the "DSH" (German Language Exam for University Admission). The German course that the three women are currently attending is specifically preparing them for this exam. It is financed by the German Academic Exchange Service. The women appreciate that a different lecturer holds the class every day, because each one has a different approach and focuses on different aspects: "One lecturer is a grammar expert, another practices oral language a lot with us. My favourite lecturer always prepares small competitions or games for us. She even awards extra points for humour in our texts. This makes learning much easier for me," says Yulia.

Lisa likes that the lessons take place in a hybrid format: "Most of the time, we go there in person because we feel that's how we learn the most. But if that's not possible, if I have an appointment, for example, then I can participate in the class from home or study independently on Moodle." The course runs until mid-December. Whether the funding for the programme for refugees will continue after that is still uncertain. However, all three women hope that they can continue their studies. Without the war, Yulia, Anna, and Lisa would never have met, they tell me. Now they are friends, supporting each other on their journey. After an hour-long conversation, we have to say goodbye; the three of them still have a lot of work to do today.

The International Study Centre (ISZ) / Language Centre

The International Study Centre (ISZ) / Language Centre offers a wide range of language courses and supports international students with buddy and tandem programmes, writing consultation, and joint leisure activities. One of the people who help organise them is Fernando Esquivel (23) from Nicaragua. He came to Germany in March 2019 and initially understood very little German. Fernando did not feel comfortable here at first and wanted to go back home: "My family, the warm weather in Nicaragua, the culture – I missed all of that very much." Today, he wants to stay in Germany. He is studying psychology in his fifth semester at the University of Kassel – in German. In addition, he works for the ISZ, where he organises excursions and activities for other international students in the "Sprachen Er-Leben" programme. He is also involved in maintaining the international table in the cafeteria. International students meet here for lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and speak German in a relaxed atmosphere. German students are also welcome; they can practice foreign languages. Fernando’s advice for those coming from afar to study at a German university is: "Take advantage of our offers. This way, you will quickly make friends and pick up German along the way. Also, remember: You've got this! Don't compare yourselves to your German peers; you're tackling a new language during your studies – it's completely normal if certain tasks take a bit more time. That does not make you less skilled or academically less qualified."

For more details on what the ISZ offers international students, check out: https://www.uni-kassel.de/einrichtung/en/isz-/-language-centre/support-international.

For additional information about German courses at the ISZ: https://www.uni-kassel.de/einrichtung/en/isz-/-language-centre/language-and-key-qualification-courses/deutsch-lernen.