Michael Stenger
Ashoka Fellow seit 2009   |   Germany

Michael Stenger

Recognizing the systematic discrimination that underage asylum seekers experience Michael is providing young refugees a chance for education and integration into German society while also changing…
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This description of Michael Stenger's work was prepared when Michael Stenger was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Recognizing the systematic discrimination that underage asylum seekers experience Michael is providing young refugees a chance for education and integration into German society while also changing negative public perceptions towards this group. By establishing and spreading a cost efficient and effective private school system for this highly discriminated group, Michael develops the individual skills and potentials of youth refugees throughout Germany. Having successfully established his SchlaU schools in Munich with 145 students, Michael is expanding throughout Bavaria, Germany's largest state.

Die neue Idee

The right to asylum is a humanitarian cornerstone in Germany. Its implementation, however, reflects the way policymakers actually perceive asylum seekers and refugees: as costly threats to society. As a result, these individuals are often far removed from mainstream society. In fact, under current law and bureaucracy, unaccompanied underage asylum seekers (UUR) over 16 years of age are prevented from attending school, learning German and acquiring vocational skills. Such policies have led this group to become disempowered and often confirm negative stereotypes by turning to drugs, crime and prostitution.

Young refugees originate from diverse backgrounds but face the common struggle of lacking German language skills and previous education. To address the shortfalls of the education system, Michael founded the SchlaU-Schule in Munich, which offers young refugees a chance for an education and integration into society. By structuring courses analogous to state schools and providing first-class student services such as social-psychological aid and legal assistance, his students have an extraordinarily high success rate at the basic state school exam, which enables them to qualify for vocational studies and a professional career.

Skillfully bringing these success stories to the attention of politicians, state welfare organizations and the wider public, Michael is transforming the perception of young asylum seekers in the eyes of relevant stakeholders.

Financed through a complex system of different state and communal funding and foundations, Michael now works on applying his pedagogical concept, lessons learned and methodology of SchlaU to Nuremberg.

Das Problem

Young refugees face systematic discrimination on a personal, political and societal level in Germany. Most youth flee from their home countries under chaotic, life threatening and traumatizing circumstances, and upon arriving to Germany, they face degrading circumstances and struggle with integration into the local culture. When placed in collective accommodations often inappropriate for unaccompanied and unprotected children, youth asylum seekers risk physical and psychological harm and lack the right to free movement as they are prevented from attending school or working. Furthermore, they are often subjected to financial pressures from their families and relatives and turn to criminal activities like prostitution and drug trafficking to earn income.

Due to deeply rooted disagreements in domestic policy, the German government has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a result, German domestic law has failed to protect young refugees after the age of 16 since they are considered to have the same legal status as their adult counterparts. Thus, these young people are forced to defend themselves in the legal asylum process which withholds many services from them. Consequently, this group does not have access to child and youth welfare services, which are otherwise normally provided to German citizens, and have no right to formal education, legal guardianship or youth lodgings.

The choice of many alienated young refugees to turn to criminal activity, as well as the subtle racism and negative stereotype, has led this disadvantaged group to be perceived as a social liability. Although the numbers of asylum seekers has dropped each year due to a new, EU-wide asylum system, resentment towards foreigners and asylum seekers has continued to increase.

Die Strategie

SchlaU-school offers a comprehensive approach for underage refugees in Germany by addressing their most urgent needs, including special language training, teaching of regular school curricula, legal assistance and social pedagogic and psychological support. Michael has accomplished this by developing a highly flexible modular class system that honors and fosters individual learning successes and offers performance incentives. Through a formalized school contract which every pupil signs upon entering school, he has fostered commitment from pupils while ingraining essential skills for further success in their careers.

SchlaU has empowered 96 percent of its semi-literate, distressed pupils from all over the world to graduate within two years from German secondary school, which usually takes nine years of schooling. Moreover, SchlaU pupils get better grades on their exams than average German pupils. With these extraordinary results, Michael has proven that his students are willing to integrate and able to accomplish extraordinary achievements at school. Furthermore, SchlaU also helps alumni find internships, apprenticeships and substantive jobs. Through mentorship programs with pro bono business partners, graduates receive crucial vocational training. As a result, none of the 53 SchlaU alumni who started a vocational training have dropped out to date, compared to a drop out rate of one in every fifth native-born German apprentices.

Through its successes, SchlaU serves as a best practice model for building political pressure in the area of refugee rights from the bottom up. By understanding the inherent challenges his target group faces, Michael successfully exerts influence on many political levels. In Munich, he already revolutionized the way refugees are received and treated throughout their asylum process. In the past, it was up to the personal goodwill of the administrative staff in the municipality of to decide whether an underage refugee attended school. Thanks to SchlaU’s steady cooperation and political pressure, today the municipality accepts the right of every underage refugee to attend school and automatically sends them to visit SchlaU upon their arrival into Germany. Michael even managed to find a legal loophole and proved it to be the city's legal duty to offer educational support to his students. As a result, the municipality now pays the salary of one of his teachers.

For students, attending the school is completely free. However, as SchlaU is not yet able to meet the growing demand of young refugees, a long waiting list exists for gaining admission. Michael is working to address this need by training other schools in Munich to adopt aspects of his approach and take young refugees in as part of their student body.

Additionally, Michael works in many political committees and task forces to change the way refugees on the whole are treated in German public. After successfully establishing SchlaU in Munich, Michael wants to expand to Nuremberg, the second only city in Bavaria with a residence for underage asylum seekers. Through this expansion, Michael would cover the whole of Bavaria, Germany's largest state. The next city he plans to expand to is Berlin.

SchlaU has also attracted regular guest visits from people working in the same field both domestically and internationally and is partnering with several citizen organizations (COs) and foundations, universities, and companies like Siemens, KPMG and BMW. Michael plans to involve further business sponsors for his expansion strategy in the near future.

Die Person

A pacifist, Michael was one of the first Germans to choose alternative social service in place of compulsory military service. During his studies teaching German as a foreign language, he founded GESUS e.V. (“Association for language and languages”) training fellow students to support Munich’s social department through language courses for refugees. After graduating, he co-founded the Dritte Welt Café e.V. (“Third World Café”), an umbrella organization for German-foreign groups in Munich and started his career working as a trainer for “German as a foreign language” teachers at the Goethe Institute (Germany’s official cultural institute) for one year.

In an attempt to create a larger impact in supporting refugees and asylum seekers, Michael continued his professional career in the asylum sector, working for five years as Executive Director of the Bavarian consortium for refugees, PRO ASYL e.V. (“Pro asylum”). During this time, he met his first wife who was Albanian, and subsequently became an expert in human rights issues in the Kosovo region. During that time, he worked for the UNHCR and as a Government consultant in Berlin for refugees from Kosovo and also founded Kosova Kommunikationszentrum e.V. (“Kosova communication centre”) to offer help for family members of Albanians.

When he returned to training teachers in teaching German as a foreign language, he noticed the growing resignation of his colleagues in dealing with young immigrants. With more and more underage refugees attending language courses at his "Institut für Sprache und Sprachen", ISUS (“Institute for Language and Languages”) Michael realized that a special institution was necessary to offer this unique group opportunity for sustainable education and integration. Faced with much resistance and misunderstanding, he worked up the courage to use his widespread network in the asylum field and his close links to the municipal administration of the city of Munich to establish the SchlaU in 2000.