It is cold, the language is foreign, and there are many unfamiliar rules. For the approximately 1,800 Iraqi refugees in Germany, while it is not always easy to feel at home, many see their futures here.
The EU has pledged to host 10,000 Iraqi refugees
After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, around two million Iraqis fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan, where many lived in extreme poverty. In November 2008, the EU's interior minister announced the bloc would take in up to 10,000 of those Iraqis in need of protection as part of efforts to alleviate the refugee crisis.
Germany currently hosts 1,800 Iraqi refugees and has pledged to take in as many as 2,500 under the EU deal.
Challenges in the classroom
One-third of the Iraqis here are under the age of sixteen - among them, twelve-year-old Ahmed from Baghdad.
He arrives on time to German class, as he wants to improve his language skills as quickly as possible. His goal is to make the most of his new life, and he pushes himself hard. The class takes place in a small and simple room with wooden tables and plastic chairs in blue, yellow and orange.
One-third of Germany's 1,800 Iraqi refugees are under the age of sixteen
In addition to Ahmed, there are seven other children between the ages of ten and fifteen who attend. They receive thirteen hours of extra class time per week outside of their regular school schedule - but they still don't understand much and are still at a basic level. Today, the students are learning how to write the word "mama."
The class is not only a challenge for the students, but also for the teacher, who doesn't speak a word of Arabic. The children are indeed willing to learn, she said, but they can also be unruly.
"This is understandable. We don't know what these children have been through in their lives so far," she says.
Peace in Germany
After class, Ahmed goes straight home. He lives with his mother and two younger sisters in the so-called "Transitional Home for Refugees." Four Iraqi families live in the four-story house.
Ahmed runs up the dirty staircase to the second floor and knocks on the door of apartment number 22. Behind it is the one room his family members have all shared since they came to Germany six weeks ago.
"In Iraq it was very difficult. We came to Germany to have a better life - without injustice and oppression. In Iraq we lived in a constant state of fear and stress. Here in Germany, peace and order rules. I wish for peace for all the children who still live in Iraq," says Ahmed, visibly content to be in Germany.
Memories of death and violence
Flowers sit on the window sill - Ahmed's mother has made a great effort to make their home more beautiful. She is in her mid-thirties and wears a plain headscarf.
"Everything is in order here," she says.
Around half of the Iraqi refugees are Christian
But previously, everything was not in order. Memories from their last days in Iraq keep coming back up.
"They threatened me and my children because I worked for an American firm in the Green Zone in Baghdad. They pushed my son and punched out two of his teeth," she says.
They threatened to kill the family if they didn't leave of Iraq.
Ahmed's mother takes out a photo showing an overturned desk chair and a hole in the ceiling after an attack on her office. Shiite militias had also attacked people in a residential neighborhood with baseball bats - and abducted twenty-five of them. Two of Ahmed's uncles were shot.
Ahmed also has bad memories from his homeland. He and other people were shot at as they tried to buy bread.
"A bullet flew by and just narrowly missed my face," he says, falling silent.
Father and grandparents left behind
Ahmed's family fled to Syria in 2006 where they applied for asylum at the UN refugee agency. After a long wait they finally received an answer - Germany would take them. Refugees from Iraq receive a three-year residence and work permit.
Around half of the refugees are Christian. Others, like Ahmed's neighbors, belong to the religious Mandaean minority, whose beliefs contain elements of Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism.
Millions of Iraqis have fled to Syria and Jordan
When Ahmed remembers his first day in Germany, he begins to cry. He thinks of his father and grandparents who had to stay behind in Syria. But then he remembers what he likes about Germany.
"In Germany, the teachers speak politely to the students. They respect them and make a big effort. In Iraq, children were hit. Here it is different and I feel happy."
And finally, Ahmed can play football again - his passion. On TV and on the Internet he can follow his favorite club, FC Barcelona.
Ahmed and his sisters also speak to their father almost every day over the computer. They tell him that Germany is cold; that it is wonderful to take the streetcar; and they report on their trip to the zoo.
And they always ask him the same question - when will you get here?
Author: Sebastian Erb (vj)
Editor: Kyle James