Kindling the Flame – Melisa Erkurt

On our path to a knowledge society, understanding the world around us is ever more important.

Fleeing the chaos of Bosnia in the 1990s and arriving in Vienna as a young child, Melisa Erkurt is well-placed to understand the experiences of Austrians from migrant backgrounds. Now 25 years old, she is the Managing Editor of das biber, a monthly magazine for young, second- and third-generation multiethnic Austrians. She is also the coordinator of biber Newcomer, aimed at secondary school students, which conducts week-long workshops in high schools all over the country to inspire teenagers to become journalists.

The workshops target classes with students from migrant backgrounds, a situation that Erkurt is familiar with – she was herself the only migrant student in her school. Through her own determination, she chose to go on to a Gymnasium (grammar school) and fully embrace the joys of learning.

The novelty of her life story – not only fleeing war but also being a Muslim in a Christian country – means she can inspire youngsters from the start. That’s not to say that the students are not already eager. “I’m constantly surprised by how thirsty for knowledge they are. I’ve seen refugee kids who’ve only been here for half a year who already speak great German.”

For Erkurt, the only real change will come through serious reforms of the entire system. She is in favor of a Gesamtschule  – a comprehensive school that doesn’t make students choose between Mittelschule (lower high school) and Gymnasium. She also thinks that the classes themselves should have a good balance of migrant and Austrian students.

Above all, Erkurt points out, the Austrian system is simply too outdated.“ It’s the same as it’s been for a hundred years, focusing on weaknesses rather than strengths. If you’re bad at math, for example, you have to resit the whole year.  In Austria, you learn for the school and not for life – that’s the biggest problem.”

Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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