After months of flight and fear, the Habashieh family of Syria is starting to build a new home in Europe’s heart and faces 2016 with an unfamiliar feeling enriching their lives. It’s called hope.
Like so many who crossed continents this year in search of European sanctuary and opportunity, the Habashiehs — mother Khawla Kareem, sisters Reem and Raghad, brothers Mohammed and Yaman — have sacrificed and suffered much along the way. The Associated Press has followed their often demoralizing experiences over the past four months in Germany, a nation toiling hard to shelter this year’s record arrival of 1 million asylum-seekers.
At times, sleeping fitfully and bewildered as to where they were or might end up, the Habashiehs questioned whether they had made a mistake to flee the civil war imperiling their Damascus home. They seemed to have traded one barely livable life for a second, more alien one. But now, sharing a meal of tabouleh in the apartment where they’ve settled, their summertime leap into the unknown has been vindicated.
“I’ll always be homesick in some way,” says the eldest daughter Reem, 19, as she puffs a gurgling shisha pipe, its apple-scented smoke swirling in the air. “But in another way, this starts feeling like home.”
Like hundreds of thousands of Syrians over the summer, the Habashiehs arrived in Europe via a smuggler’s boat from Turkey to Greece. Crossfire between state and rebel forces had already damaged their Damascus home once and was breaking their spirits.
With her husband dead from natural causes, Khawla Habashieh sold the family car and, using the proceeds plus savings from her work as an elementary school teacher, paid for air tickets to Turkey and 12,000 euros (about $13,000) for space on a one-way sea journey to the Greek island of Samos.
Unsure if they would ever return, the Habashiehs toted as many memories of Damascus as they could. But moments before their August departure, traffickers told them the crowded rubber dinghy couldn’t bear the weight. Left behind on the Turkish shore were irreplaceable mementos from their lost lives.
Onward they went by ferry to the Greek mainland; by foot, bus and train through the sun-scorched Balkans; and by another smuggler’s minibus from Hungary to Berlin. It took 16 days and nights of almost nonstop travel to reach what they hoped would be their final destination, Germany’s immigrant-friendly and cosmopolitan capital.
“In Berlin we were comfortable. … The people in Berlin are nice,” Khawla recalled.
Alas, Berlin was only the start of an unexpectedly complex and soul-testing German journey. By early September, refugee housing in the high-demand capital was full and its central registration office for refugees overwhelmed, its ever-lengthening line of applicants snaking daily outside the building.
Determined to absorb maximum levels of refugees without fueling an explosion of anti-immigrant sentiment, Germany has tried to disperse asylum-seekers as widely as possible across the map, including to its least salubrious corners.
So, after two weeks of patient queuing at the registration center, the Habashiehs finally got their assignment for asylum housing: Chemnitz in southeast Germany, near the Czech border.
Their hearts sank as they understood they were bound for an economically depressed region of the former East Germany where anti-foreigner sentiments run high.
Full of trepidation, off they went on Sept. 16. On the train, before they even reached Chemnitz, a drunken skinhead gave them an icy glare.
As the Chemnitz asylum center came into view, the Habashiehs could barely believe their eyes. The prison-style facility, its towering fences crowned with barbed wire, previously served as a barracks for Soviet and Nazi troops.
“I’m scared. I hate this,” said the youngest daughter, 11-year-old Raghad, bursting into tears and embracing her mother.
Yet soon, the Habashiehs found themselves protesting in vain to stay. Organizers had no beds left for them. They had to spend the night outside, waiting for a bus to take them elsewhere. Nobody could tell them where.
That chilly morning, the bus took them farther east toward Dresden, then to Heidenau, scene of August’s anti-migrant riots, when buses filled with newcomers were pelted with rocks. This would be their new home.
In its previous life, the German Red Cross-run shelter was a two-story hardware store. Today it’s a factory of despondency.
“I keep telling my mom that soon we will be done here and start our lives again,” Reem said in an interview a week after arrival. “But really, it’s unbearable here.”
Workers used white sheets to create walls screening steel-framed cots from public view, but they created no sense of privacy. Toilets were too few for the 700 residents and typically filthy. The cavernous concrete hall amplified sounds. At night, as many carried on conversations and card games at a whisper, their layered voices in dozens of tongues combined with the wailing of infants to create a din of sleep-wrecking noise.
Her mother prayed to Mecca each dawn, but the daughter said she was struggling to keep her spirits up.
“She is very depressed. She cries every day,” Reem said, adding that she too felt her physical health slide and sometimes lacked motivation to get out of bed.
While siblings played by day in the parking lot outside, Reem chiefly read books downloaded on her phone. Her brother Mohammed made friends in the shelter who went with him on time-killing treks through a nearby shopping mall, but they lacked money to buy anything substantial.
Trips into Heidenau proved nervous affairs, particularly for Reem and her mother. A man in a coffee shop shouted that they should remove the hijabs covering their hair. Someone in a passing car screamed “Foreigners out!” at them.
Tempering the hostility was a volunteer, musician Julius Roennebeck, who plays French horn in Dresden’s opera house. He befriended the Habashiehs and brought them blankets, medicine and German books to help them gain needed language skills. He also took them on sightseeing visits to Dresden and the nearby medieval town of Pirna.
“Julius is just wonderful,” Reem said. “He has been so kind to us.”
“I just really like this family so much,” Roennebeck said. “They’re great people.”
After two months without progress, Khawla’s day one frosty mid-November began badly — with a gruff translator shaking her from her slumber. But her news was surprisingly good: A taxi was coming within the hour to take them to a proper home.
As the family stuffed clothes and other possessions into plastic bags, they worried, because each move since Berlin had dealt bitter blows.
“Every time we get moved to a new, unknown place we have this twisted pain in our stomachs,” Reem recalled.
Their ultimate destination was Zwickau, the town that once built the Trabant auto, a symbol of East German industry under Communism. German unification in 1990 led swiftly to closure of the Trabant line and the town’s uranium industry. Mass emigration west followed, leaving 7,000 apartments in Soviet-era residential blocks empty for decades.
The Habashiehs now have one. And they love it.
All recall the simple pleasure of their first night’s sleep in a proper bed with peace and privacy, and their first meal home-cooked by Khawla, since their escape from Damascus.
It has involved a bracing plunge into German order. The social worker who provided the door key explained how to separate garbage into three bins and rules on keeping noise down during afternoon nap time and at night. Others soon notified the family of school places for Raghad and Yaman, her 15-year-old brother, who had grown withdrawn in Germany but now suddenly perked up. Mom and the two older children received places in daily German courses at Zwickau’s community college.
On Dec. 22, the family finally received the appointment they had sought since Berlin: a formal interview to request asylum. Though that process will take months, Syrians typically receive refugee protection in Germany with renewable residency rights granted for one to three years at a time.
They have enjoyed strolling daily through Zwickau, finding Arabic shops as well as perusing the Christmas market, though shunning the fast food offerings with meats presumed not to be halal. Their growing sense of social ease is evident as Raghad leaps aboard a yellow elephant on a merry-go-round and Yaman replies “Danke” — German for thank you — when ordering sugar-coated almonds from a vendor.
They’ve decorated their three-bedroom apartment with red plastic baubles, tinsel and other Christmas trinkets, recalling how they used to take curious swings through the old Christian section of Damascus.
Though Zwickau has a small mosque, the Habashiehs typically worship at home, with an app on Reem’s phone set to sound the call to prayer five times daily. Helping restore a sense of their past life is Khawla’s powerful Arabic coffee and the music of Lebanese singer Fairuz in the mornings, and relaxed evenings with the shisha pipe on the balcony.
Arabic hospitality has returned to full flow, too. A dinner of cucumber, garlic and mint tabouleh comes accompanied with rice mixed with minced beef and peas, followed by tea, fruit, cake and more no-nonsense coffee.
Talk turns to what they hope the new year will bring. Raghad would like a Barbie doll. Yaman wants recording equipment to produce his own rap music. Mohammed doesn’t want anything for himself, simply for peace to return to his homeland.
Reem, who already speaks English fluently and studied economics at Damascus University, says her new year’s goal is to learn German and return to college. “I will speak very good German and I am very excited about it,” she says.
All now realize that, after months of difficulty, Germany already has given them their best present for 2016: refuge from bloodshed.
“Sometimes I wake up and I feel like: Thank God I’m alive,” Reem says. “I’m lucky.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines