KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
We're going to go to Berlin now where a new university opened yesterday. It's mostly online. It's tuition free, and it's for asylum-seekers anywhere in the world. Esme Nicholson brings us the story.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: 21-year-old Kashif Kazmi is obsessed with science, and he feels a connection with his favorite scientists.
KASHIF KAZMI: I have a picture of all the scientists. You have - my favorite one is Newton and Einstein - Albert Einstein. He's the, you can say, a father of science, whole science, physics especially.
NICHOLSON: Isaac Newton narrowly escaped the English Civil War, and Albert Einstein fled Nazi Germany. Kashif is seeking refuge from the Taliban. In May this year, he left his home in northwest Pakistan where he says he was persecuted as a member of the Shia minority. His family is still there.
KAZMI: I really miss my family and my friends who are there because my sisters. My father is old, and he cannot cope with the situation. But I have no other option, and I'm so homesick.
NICHOLSON: Kashif wants to give his sisters a better life and hopes one day to bring them to Germany. For him, this means pursuing higher education, something he says he was denied back home.
KAZMI: They don't want us to be educated. They want us to be ignorant.
NICHOLSON: Kashif arrived in Berlin at the end of July and already speaks some German. Having traveled through nine countries to get here, he's overcome many barriers. Yet, as an asylum seeker, he is not permitted to attend a local university because he doesn't have the requisite paperwork and status. But now he has an alternative. Sitting at his laptop, Markus Kressler pulls up a virtual seminar on mechanical engineering. The 25-year-old is co-founder of Kiron, a university for refugees that taps into college courses freely available on the Internet.
MARKUS KRESSLER: Basically everyone can already log into these courses. What we do is we just take these courses, bundle them into degree programs and make corporations with real universities so that they also recognize these courses in order to get a degree in the end.
NICHOLSON: Kiron University students study online for the first two years of a bachelor's degree, giving them time to apply for asylum and acquire the paperwork and qualifications needed to enter a real university in their final year. Kressler says Kiron is already partnering with 30 universities throughout Europe and Africa and is currently in talks with Ivy League institutions in the U.S.
KRESSLER: Every kind of university has about 30 to 50 percent of free seats in the third year because so many students quit.
NICHOLSON: Kiron students simply fill these empty seats. The program may also benefit the German economy. Currently, they offer degrees in computer science, engineering, business and architecture - all areas in which there is a skill shortage here. The university is starting its pilot semester with 1,000 students. The interest is far greater, but Kiron requires investment.
KRESSLER: As a startup, you always need to create that proof of concept to show everyone that it really works. And if you start an online university for refugees, it takes three or four years in order to see if the students can actually go into the job market.
NICHOLSON: Kashif is starting a degree in business administration at Kiron. It's not his first love, physics, but he hopes to get a job in humanitarian aid.
KAZMI: Today, I am a refugee, but tomorrow - I hope so - I will be in a position to support others.
NICHOLSON: Kashif can hardly contain his excitement. Having been denied it for so long, he says he knows the true value of education. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
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