ZWICKAU, Germany – Just before dawn, a worker shook the matriarch of the refugee family out of sleep at their asylum center in a depressed German town.
"Get up and pack your belongings," the woman said curtly. "A taxi will come in an hour and take you away."
The Syrian woman hastily woke her children, stuffed their belongings into plastic bags, and took them out into the cold to wait — worried about what was coming next after weeks of heartbreak being shunted from one squalid refugee center to another.
"Will it be better, will it be worse?" Reem Habashieh, the family's eldest daughter, recalled thinking. "Every time we get moved to a new, unknown place we have this twisted pain in our stomachs because we don't know what's going to happen."
The Habashiehs — 44-year-old mother Khawla Kareem; 19-year-old Reem; sons Mohammed, 18, and Yaman, 15; and 11-year-old daughter Raghad — fled the war in Syria in August when fighting hit their neighborhood in Damascus. The journey took them across the Mediterranean in an overcrowded dinghy to Greece, on a grueling trek north across the Balkans with hundreds of thousands of other migrants, and finally a last leg in a trafficker's minibus to the promised land of Germany's capital.
Berlin dazzled them with its cosmopolitan splendor but the elation didn't last: Soon they were sent to the underdeveloped east, where racism and neo-Nazi activity remain rife.
The Habashiehs are among an unprecedented wave of asylum seekers — 800,000 so far with an expectation of 1 million by year's end — who have come to this rich country seeking a fresh start. Cities and towns across Germany are struggling to keep up with the massive demand for accommodation, and officials have been working overtime to handle the huge backlogs of asylum applications. It doesn't always run so smoothly.
Since their initial arrival in Germany, the Habashiehs have been put up in four temporary housing facilities throughout eastern Germany. Far-right thugs have spewed hatred at them. Their days have been filled with squalor in overcrowded asylum centers, and soul-sapping boredom as days of indolence blend one into the other. The Paris attacks now raise fears of a backlash against Syrian migrants, even though, Reem said, she and other refugees thought of the perpetrators as "sick terrorists using their fake Islam as cover."
The family's rushed departure last month from the town of Heidenau did not have an auspicious beginning. The taxi took them to yet another temporary shelter in the gritty eastern city of Chemnitz — it was a former prison.
Still, they were happy because they got a room of their own again and didn't have to sleep in a big hall with hundreds of other migrants.
Last week, the family was told they would be transferred once more — again with no information.
The Habashiehs ended up in Zwickau, a small city of 90,000 near the Czech border in eastern Germany, where they were brought to a neighborhood of endless communist-era, prefabricated concrete apartment buildings.
It looked grim, but things suddenly got a lot brighter: A friendly social worker gave them the keys to their own apartment, explaining how to separate the garbage into three different bins. He cautioned them to keep the sound down between 1 and 3 p.m. in the afternoon — post-lunch nap time — and after 10 p.m., in line with German noise regulations.
The Habashiehs had a new home.
The best news of all was that the two youngest kids would be able to start school, while Khawla Kareem, Reem and Mohammed would enroll in a daily intensive language class at the city's community college.
Even Yaman, the 15-year-old boy, who had been withdrawn and quiet since their arrival in Germany, suddenly cheered up.
"I'm happy ... We're independent again," the teenager said, as he carefully straightened out blue-checkered blankets on the metal beds in the room he shares with his brother.
After less than a week in Zwickau, Yaman and his sister Raghad have already met the principal of Humboldt Oberschule high school. He applauded their basic German skills and said they would attend daily afternoon classes to get them up to speed in German before joining regular classes.
One recent afternoon, the mother was busy in the kitchen cooking, while her daughters were sprucing up their still barren three-bedroom apartment with teddy bears and Christmas decorations that a boy neighbor had brought over.
"We're trying to have our own magical touches," Reem said excitedly. "We just started looking for shops to make the place look pretty with all the girly-girly stuff and make it look just like a home."
She spoke of the simple joy of sleeping in her own bed again for the first time since they left Syria: "It feels great."
In their spare time, the five have been out to discover the city.
Zwickau, a former coal mining city, was famous for the production of the East German Trabant automobile during communist times. These days, Volkswagen is the biggest employer. The car company moved in after the breakdown of Communism in 1989, but hasn't been able to fully absorb the jobs losses after the old regime collapsed.
Many residents moved to western Germany looking for work, which explains why there are some 7,000 empty apartments that can be used for asylum seekers.
When the Habashiehs discovered Al Amin, a tiny Middle Eastern grocery store, they were overjoyed.
With their new monthly living allowance of around 1,000 euros (1,100 dollars) they stocked up on the food they'd been missing for so long: zaatar spice mix from Aleppo, dried jute leaves for Mloukhieh stew, as well as sweet dates, stuffed eggplants and halal meat.
Back home, Khawla Kareem took off her black overcoat, put on a blue-white glittery shirt and cheerfully roamed around the kitchen. Soon aromatic scents filled the whole apartment. As Reem set the table, the call for the evening prayer sounded from her smartphone app.
Then the family sat around the table to share a meal of tabouleh salad, yoghurt with cucumber, garlic and mint as well as a big bowl of rice mixed with minced beef and peas, followed by tea, fruit, Arabic coffee and cake.
At night, Yaman lit the shisha, or water pipe, for his mother and oldest sister. Sitting on the balcony, Reem stared dreamily at the shisha charcoal glowing in the dark, listening to the bubbly sound of the pipe, as she took a deep drag of the apple-flavored smoke. Just like she did on rare summer nights back in Damascus, when the war eased for a couple of days and people went out again to enjoy a few peaceful hours.
"I'll always be homesick in some way," she said thoughtfully. "But in another way, this starts feeling like home. We all sit together around the table, eating mom's food, talking about the past and what lies ahead for us in the future."
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