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German families look to US for asylum

A decision allowing home-schoolers to stay could attract other families.

Six-year-olds Pia, Paulina and Markus (left to right) pose on their first day at the Marienfelde Klepert elementary school in Berlin on Aug. 25, 2003. (Manuela Hartling/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The doorbell rang early that morning in 2006, before the three oldest Romeike children had begun their schoolwork at the family’s kitchen table in Bissingen, Germany.

Uwe Romeike peeked through a window and saw two police officers.

Romeike’s heart stopped. He didn’t know what to do. He prayed the officers would go away if he didn’t answer the door. Instead, Romeike said, the officers left a voice message threatening to break in.

Daniel, then 9, Lydia, then 8, and Joshua, then 6, were supposed to be in school, the officers said, and they would go to school that day, even if they had to be transported in the back of a police van.

Soon after, Romeike and his wife, Hannelore, stood on their front porch with their two youngest children and watched the van drive away, their three oldest children in the back.

The family knew that it was illegal to not enroll children in a state-registered school in Germany. But Uwe Romeike never thought it would come to that.

“I felt very helpless,” he said. “My children were crying, the police were shouting.”

Hannelore Romeike was able to pick-up her children from the school where they had been delivered, but the family paid thousands of euros in fines over the next few years, and was never sure whether the police would show up again. In 2008, the family moved to Tennessee and applied for asylum.

A Tennessee immigration judge in January ruled that the Romeike family faced persecution in Germany, and approved the asylum request. But weeks later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement appealed the ruling, arguing that the United States recognizes the right of governments to regulate school attendance. It will be months before the Romeikes know for sure whether they can stay in the United States, said Michael Donnelly, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, which represents the family.

“Asylum from a western country is very unusual,” Donnelly said. “Germany’s got a pretty decent record on human rights in recent history, and they’re an ally, so this is maybe a little bit embarrassing for them.”

The case is the first of its kind.

Romeike and his wife decided to home-school their children in 2006, after their son suffered at the hands of violent bullies, he said. Their daughter was frightened to attend class after another student brought a knife.

In Germany, Romeike said, home-schoolers are stereotyped as “weird people or religious nuts.” But religion wasn’t a factor when the family first decided to home school. It wasn’t until they were forced to prepare a legal defense of their home schooling that they argued that the practice would allow them to teach the Bible to their children. For his family, Romeike said, home-schooling is a lifestyle that offers children a chance to learn at their own pace, in a calm, loving environment.

Germany is nearly alone in Europe in its stand against home-schooling.