Afghans Afzal and Rafie have been living in Germany for a couple months after fleeing the conflict in their homeland. They don't know if they will be allowed to stay in Europe. Meanwhile they wait, hope and learn German.
It took Afzal six months to reach his destination. He went on foot, by bus and even on horseback. It was an odyssey that took him from Afghanistan's central-eastern Wardak province to Bergisch-Gladbach, a town located near Cologne in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
To reach his country of choice, he had to traverse several other nations, including Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria. But the strenuous trip would not deter him from reaching his goal. Afzal left his parents and other relatives behind in Afghanistan. He simply wanted out of the war-torn country and was willing to go to great lengths to achieve this. "People are being arrested and murdered in my home country. This is why I am here," Afzal told DW.
Until recently, the 29-year-old had spent all his life in a conflict zone. When he was born, a ten-year-long war pitting Afghans against Soviets was raging in the country. Shortly after, the extremist Taliban took over. Five years later, the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York led to a US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
However, the security situation in the country remained volatile even after NATO finished its 13-year-long ISAF mission last year. "I don't think anything will change," said Afzal, adding that this is why he is seeking to start a new life and find work in Germany.
A dream, an idea
His dream is to one day study business management. But the realization of this dream seems far away, as Afzal can neither read nor write. But although he never attended school in Afghanistan, he is now learning German twice a week alongside 65 other refugees from all over the world. They are all taking part in the "Herwi" initiative - short for "Herzlich Willkommen" (German for "welcome").
After retiring, former Cologne school teacher Klaus Farber and his wife came up with the idea of helping refugees with their German language skills. Their program is directed at people whose residence status in Germany has yet to be determined and who therefore cannot ask the German state to help finance language courses.
After placing an ad in the local newspaper, Farber quickly rallied some 60 people - most of them former teachers - who are willing to help out with the program. All of the students are adults and come from countries such as Syria, Armenia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Afghanistan. The initiative also support the refugees by organizing visits to the doctor or administrative bodies.
Learning for daily life
Twice a week the students attend class in a rented house, whey they practice grammar and learn new words. But as Farber told DW, these classes are also designed to help the students better cope with daily life in Germany by teaching them the vocabulary used in activities such as grocery shopping or asking for directions.
Farber pointed out that most of the students are highly educated: "Although we have some illiterate people in class, most of them have a more or less high level of English."
There are also some highly skilled professionals among them, such as software or mechanical engineers, who have good chances of entering the German labor market, he added.
Fear and uncertainty
Thirty-four-year-old Rafie also belongs to the well-educated class of his country. After graduating from high school in Afghanistan, he worked as a journalist. Although he didn't study at university, he did attend several courses and gained working experience at two different newspapers. He has been in Germany for ten months, and just like Afzal, he came to Europe over land. During his seven-month long journey he was arrested and jailed. "If I was granted a residence permit, I would like to study journalism," he told DW.
As Farber pointed out, many of his students are forced to live in fear of one day being repatriated. He and his fellow voluntary teachers are troubled every time "their" refugees - as he calls them - receive news that they could be deported.
"Most of them are afraid. They ask us: 'Will they grant us the right to stay? Will we find a job? What will happen to us?,'" he said, adding that nobody has yet to be deported in the past five months. But despite the fear, he said his students are all highly motivated in class: "We asked them if they wanted to continue and they all said, 'Yes.' There were no exceptions."
An ongoing effort
Afzal would even prefer to have more German classes. Two hours twice a week are simply not enough: "By the time I come back to class I've forgotten almost everything I learned the previous week," he said.
Rafie has a similar view: "Learning German is very difficult for me. But I try my best." Giving up, however, is out of the question for both of them. They like it in Germany, they say, adding that they have yet to be confronted with xenophobia or prejudices.
The initiative, which was initially designed to last for half a year - is now in its fifth month. But Farber isn't thinking on quitting: "We have some 600 refugees in Bergisch-Gladbach, and expect this number to grow to more than 1,000 by the end of the year." It seems there will be enough work for Farber and his team of voluntary workers. "As long as both the refugees and the teachers are interested, classes will go on."