Retired Rochester Adams High School Instructor Teaches German To Refugees


Elyse Gregory

Janie Barner talks about her students and how she taught them German.

Janie Barner, a retired Rochester Adams High School German instructor, visited Oakland University’s Gold Rooms to share her experience teaching German to refugees.

“There are so many people who assist with the refugees,” said Anja Wieden, an assistant professor of German at OU and the opening speaker of the event. “Over eight million people volunteered in Germany and it’s time to hear the stories of the volunteers.”

The refugee crisis began in 2015. Today, about 65.6 million people have fled their homes worldwide and 50 percent of Syrians have left their homes. Most of them flee to neighboring countries, but some take the Balkan route into Europe.

Those wishing to cross from Turkey to Greece will spend between $800 and $1,300 for a smuggler and another $150 for a life jacket. An average traveler would only expect to pay about 20 euros for a ferry ride.

Many have hopes to find a new home in Germany or Austria if they complete this journey. Barner found the overwhelming reason for such a far and difficult travel was simply hope for the future.

The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Markell, and Austria are welcoming. The two countries deploy trains to bring the refugees in.

“These countries are seen as he promised land,” Barner said.

Using train travel to transport and welcoming refugees into their countries was symbolically monumental after the events of World War II.

“You can imagine what is meant to welcome train loads of people,” Barner said. “It was impossible for the German people to turn them away.”

Barner retired from Rochester Adams in June 2015. Her plans were to visit Germany for Christmas and then move on to New Zealand. But after seeing the photos of traveling refugees and hearing the stories, she and her husband knew that they wanted to be a part of it.

They arrived in Bad Neustadt, a small town in Northern Bavaria, on Dec. 6, 2015 and stayed for 88 days. There, she met her first four students.

“We jumped in, just like Adams High School,” Barner said. “They wanted homework. They were serious about Germany because it was an avenue for success.”

Barner and her husband taught five years worth of German to their students in six weeks.

She then moved on to teach in Vienna, Austria with The Autonomous Collective,  a group offering classes with no strings attached in the city of Amerlingaus, Austria.

She also spent time teaching at a temporary refugee camp established by The Red Cross as well as a home for unaccompanied minors. In each of these opportunities, the connections and networks she established allowed her to teach in various places and reach out to more refugees.

With each experience, Barner was always overwhelmed by the generosity of her students.

‘They gave us presents,” Barner said. “It’s all part of the welcoming culture to those who have lent them a hand.”

She said she still uses the butter dish that she received from her students in Bad Neustadt.

Since her recent return, Barner is sharing the experiences she had in her travels at home, hoping to bring greater awareness to an important topic.

“We’re very similar,” she said. “I know we say that, but it’s so true.