Remade 'terror school' offers hope for German immigrant challenge

Wed Nov 18, 2015 8:38am EST
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By Tina Bellon

BERLIN (Reuters) - A decade ago, the Ruetli school in Berlin's Neukoelln district became a symbol of all that was wrong with Germany's integration of immigrants.

Its teachers begged city officials to shut it down because of violence. Hooded students were filmed pelting police and reporters gathered at the school's entrance with cobblestones.

Today, Ruetli is transformed and the scenes from 2006 a distant memory. Some 33 million euros ($35 million) in public money have been pumped into the school over the past few years and the widow of former German president Johannes Rau is a patron.

Violence is down sharply and a gleaming new event hall houses art exhibitions and a state-of-the-art gymnasium.

For wealthy Germany, which faces a mammoth challenge to integrate and educate hundreds of thousands of refugees - many of them fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq - the radical remake of Ruetli is an example of what is possible if politicians embrace the task with commitment and resources.

Conversely, the Ruetli of ten years ago is a reminder of how integration can veer off course when the authorities don't get behind it.

"What we've learned is that integration needs to be shaped," said Cordula Heckmann, principal of the Ruetli school and a teacher there since 2001. "The years of experience we've had with people coming to us shows that this process cannot be left to its own devices."

Ruetli is located in a heavily Arab and Turkish neighborhood where 52 percent of the inhabitants have a migrant background and 71 percent depend on welfare benefits.   Continued...

Cordula Heckmann, principal of Berlin's Ruetli Campus, speakes to her pupils in Berlin, Germany, November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke