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For refugees in 'promised land,' life in Germany harder than expected

Germany has registered nearly a million refugees this year, but language, housing, and employment present significant barriers to the newcomers' assimilation.

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    Two refugee children wait amongst luggage for registration at the Hesse state Initial Reception Center in Giessen, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015.
    Boris Roessler/dpa via AP
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When Ahmed Saadi Mahayni meets with newly arrived refugees in Germany, he often gives out three pieces of advice: Learn the language, try to have patience, and get ready for a lot of hard work.

“Many people think of Germany as the place where all of their dreams and hopes will happen if they just come, but I try to prepare them for the difficult reality that they will face,” says Mr. Mahayni, a counselor at the Workers Welfare (AWO) aid organization.

“Getting to Germany is just part of the battle,” he says. “The real challenges start once you arrive and try to make a life for yourself.”

Mahayni knows these challenges firsthand, having fled his native Syria in 2011 at the outbreak of a revolution that would devolve into a protracted and bloody civil war. He made his way to Germany, where he stayed at one of the refugee centers that AWO runs across Berlin until his application for asylum was approved.

Because he spoke English and Arabic fluently, Mahayni began volunteering at the center, translating for refugees and the staff during the day while devoting his evenings to studying German. Eventually, the 39-year-old received permission to work in Germany and was hired by AWO full-time.

“I’m happy to have this job and to be able to give back to the people who come from my home country,” Mahayni says. “It is a way for me to integrate with this new life while helping others to do the same.”

Having registered almost one million refugees this year, Germany has emerged as something of a promised land: a place where desperate masses can find safety, stability, jobs, and a chance to start their lives anew. But as the number of asylum-seekers grows, so does the challenge of integrating them.

Those who have been in the country for a year or longer say the reality of life in Germany is far more difficult than they had expected, indicating that cases like Mahayni’s are the exception rather than the norm.

The language barrier

Laila Musa, a 21-year-old Syrian Palestinian refugee from Damascus, arrived in Germany with her father and two sisters at the start of 2014. Although Germany had just over 200,000 asylum applications that year, the influx strained the system and the family spent eight months waiting for their applications to be processed. It took nearly as long before they were able to enroll in government-funded language courses.

Ms. Musa says the delay increased their feeling of isolation, and while she’s making progress in learning German, her 56-year-old father is struggling.

“It is difficult for him to study at his age, and without the language there is no chance to work,” Laila says. “I try to stay positive, but it sometimes feels like we are separated by a big glass wall, where you can see this beautiful potential life but you’re not able to reach it.”

For Laila’s younger siblings – aged eight and 15 – assimilation is likely to be easier. German law requires that children of asylum seekers be enrolled in school, where they are often placed in special “welcome” classes aimed at helping them integrate more quickly. But with more than 300,000 new students expected this year, German schools are struggling to cope.

Irina Wissmann, director of Berlin’s An der Bake Elementary School, had to hire a new teacher before classes began in September to accommodate 19 new refugee students. She says that integrating them into regular classrooms can take six months to a year.

“Most speak different languages, and some students have been out of school for quite some time because of their situations,” Ms. Wissmann says. “Some of them also have trauma, so it is very difficult for them to adjust.”

Housing hard to find

Finding a place to live is another challenge, especially for those who have been in Germany too long to qualify for a bed at one of the refugee reception centers. Berlin was experiencing an affordable housing shortage even before the arrival of thousands of migrants. Rents are rising while construction has been slow to catch up, making it difficult for refugees to find places of their own.

In cities like Berlin, refugees say the growing demand has created a black market for rent-controlled apartments, with unscrupulous brokers peddling leases for exorbitant fees.

Muhammad Al Zeen, a 25-year-old Syrian from Damascus, says he nearly signed such a contract. When he and his brother arrived in Berlin last year, they spent five months living with 200 other refugees in a cramped gymnasium. Although they qualified for government-subsidized housing, they struggled to find someone willing to rent to them.

“There are not a lot of places, and people don’t always want to rent to refugees because they think it’s a risk or they won’t get their money,” says Mr. Al Zeen. “We were lucky because some German friends helped us get a place, otherwise we would have had to pay a lot of money to one of the middlemen.”

Signs of a backlash

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to throw the country’s doors open this summer initially triggered an outpouring of public sympathy for the refugees. Many say the generosity of ordinary Germans has helped them face the challenges of adjusting to their new lives.

But there are signs of an anti-refugee backlash: Far-right attacks on asylum seekers and shelters has more than tripled from last year, while calls for immigration restrictions are growing louder in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

Although Ms. Merkel has so far refused to cap the number of refugees Germany accepts, her government has taken steps to curb the flow by tightening asylum rules, speeding up deportations of rejected applicants, and limiting family reunions. Under intense pressure to deal with the crisis, she helped seal a deal with Turkey this week that seeks to reduce the number of refugees arriving on European shores.

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