Racism and insomnia plague Syrian refugee family in Germany

A volunteer from nearby Dresden has befriended the Habashiehs, who fled Syria's civil war

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For the Syrian refugee family, one reprieve from crushing boredom in the asylum center is short walks to a lake. But in a town teeming with neo-Nazis, the excursions can bring more distress than relief: A man recently stormed out of a coffee shop and screamed at two women of the Habashieh family to take off their hijabs "because we're in Europe!" Another time, people inside a car yelled: "Auslaender raus!!" — Foreigners out!!

Fear and frustration, however, have been tempered by kindness. A volunteer from nearby Dresden has befriended the Habashiehs, who fled Syria's civil war and are now living in a temporary facility in the eastern town of Heidenau after arriving in Germany last month, following a perilous journey from Damascus. The experience mirrors the mixture of hostility and generosity that has greeted hundreds of thousands of migrants streaming into Europe this year.


Julius Roennebeck helps the Habashiehs — Khawla Kareem, 44; her 19-year-old daughter Reem; sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15; and 11-year-old daughter Raghad — with practical things such as getting warm blankets, juice and aspirin, and has bought them German-language books. More than anything, the family appreciates how Roennebeck, who plays French horn at Dresden's famed Semper Opera house, has driven the family to outings in Dresden and the nearby medieval town of Pirna.

"Julius is just wonderful," Reem says of the tall German musician. "He has been so kind to us."

For Roennebeck, the kindness doesn't feel like a chore: "I just really like this family so much, they're great people."

The outings with Roennebeck are an oasis in a desert of misery that has left the family — except for little Raghad — depressed and listless.

Most of the family gets up late in the morning, because they hardly sleep at night in the hall crammed with 700 other asylum seekers. Next to them is a new family with a little baby screaming for hours. Sometimes the young men get cabin fever so badly they start playing soccer inside the former home improvement center in the middle of the night. The officials turn off the light at 11 p.m., but the sounds of hundreds of people whispering in countless foreign languages echo through the building, creating a deafening buzz.

When it finally quiets down in the early morning hours, most of the family drifts into a deep slumber. But for Khawla Kareem, it's time to get up.

Facing Mecca, she kneels down for the dawn prayer, and spends her day agonizing about their situation. Sitting on her narrow cot in their little curtained-off space, she often regrets taking her children away from their familiar life in Damascus. Desperate to shield them from the war, Khawla Kareem handed the family savings to traffickers who took them across the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, guided them on hidden trails across the Balkans, and eventually sped them in a minibus to Berlin.

Back home in Syria, Khawla Kareem, whose husband died three years ago, was the boss of the household. Now she feels powerless.

"She had to make all the decisions herself, she worked as an elementary teacher, raised us kids, cleaned the house every day," says Reem. It was a tough life, especially keeping the children safe from war — but here, Khawla Kareem's inability to speak German makes her feel as if she's lost control of her destiny.

She can't send her kids to school, giving her a sense that they're wasting their lives. It upsets her to watch Raghad spend her days running around with other refugee kids, while her boys play cards with Syrian men all night long. The bathrooms are so dirty, she doesn't even want to use them.

It's the limbo that's the hardest on the mother. After two weeks in Berlin and a month in Heidenau, the Habashiehs still haven't been able to file their asylum application.

On Tuesday, Khawla Kareem checked the center's blackboard for their names in vain. Again, the family had not been called up for any of the procedures, not even the initial health check. The examination, which includes an X-ray for tuberculosis and checks for itching and lice, is also a precondition to collecting weekly pocket money of about 30 euros per person.

The reason for the months-long delay in processing the asylum applications is the huge crush of people seeking refugee status. In September alone, some 164,000 people were pre-registered as asylum seekers; for all of 2015 the German government is expecting about a million newcomers. Despite the cold autumn weather, thousands are still trekking across the Balkans and entering Germany via the Austrian border.

German authorities are hiring additional staff to speed up the procedures. Still there's a backlog. Some experts estimate it may take up to a year for Syrian refugees to receive asylum status.

Syrians will most certainly be allowed to stay in Germany — in contrast to many applicants from countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo or Albania, which the government considers safe. But there's not much they can do while awaiting a decision. They're not allowed to work for their first three months in Germany, and they are not allowed to leave the county they are placed in until they are granted asylum. Often schools are too far away for children to attend on a regular basis.

Reem has been shouldering much of the responsibility for the family since arriving in Germany. She keeps up a brave face, knocking on officials' doors every other week to make sure the family's papers didn't get lost, and talking to medical staff if one of them falls ill.

The pretty young woman with big hazel eyes rarely allows herself a weak moment, but she, too, is sinking under the strain.

"Since last week, I'm not my active self anymore," she admits. "I even couldn't make myself get out of bed in the morning."

Only little Raghad stays in high spirits. She gives her mom hugs and kisses when she cries, and spends hours roller-blading in front of the shelter. She seems to be mastering German better than the rest of the family.

And she has made lots of new friends, especially among security staff.

"There are Kevin and Frank, and there's a female guard with blue eyes and another one who recently dyed her hair pink, but now it's black again — they all are my friends," she chatters away, waving to a grim-looking guard. He breaks into a smile.

"I've made two more friends, a Kurdish girl and another Syrian, and we ride bicycles or play hopscotch," Raghad says, pulling a big gray hat with silver sparkles down her head, shivering on a gray October day. "But really, I miss studying and school more than anything."

Suddenly, she runs over to her guard friends to show off the new German words she has learned: "Es ist sehr kalt in Deutschland!"

It's very cold in Germany.

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