ZWICKAU, GERMANY >> Christmas carols sound in the medieval square, and the scents of hot spiced wine, anise cookies and beeswax candles waft through the air at Zwickau's traditional Christmas market.
The four children of the Habashieh family, Syrian refugees, wander from stand to stand, looking with big eyes at all the mouthwatering delicacies — filled with joy that they will be spending their first German Christmas in the warmth of their own home.
Only weeks ago, Khawla Kareem, the matriarch, was so desperate about life in Germany that she said she would rather brave the bombs in Damascus than spend another day in a cramped shelter with no privacy, no school for her children and fear of racist attacks.
Today, she couldn't be happier: Following months in a succession of squalid asylum centers, German authorities found them an empty apartment where they could live with modest dignity. The Muslim family has joined in the Christmas spirit of their neighbors, decorating the door of their flat with glittery red bells and tree branches in green and gold.
"We're fully integrated now," Reem Habashieh, the family's oldest daughter, says with a twinkle in her eye. Her little sister Raghad, 11, even has a toy Christmas calendar like most German kids, where each date is a door that opens to reveal chocolate in the countdown to Christmas eve.
The Habashiehs' journey has been one of hardship and heartbreak: braving choppy Mediterranean waters in a dinghy to Greece; trekking through Balkan corn-fields with no water in scorching heat; jumping across barbed wire in fear of Hungarian border police; paying Romanian smugglers thousands of euros (dollars) to take them to Berlin in a minibus; spending countless sleepless nights in asylum centers with unspeakably filthy toilets.
It all now feels like a bad dream.
Now they are living a new German dream which is playing out to the tune of Yuletide cheer. At the Christmas market, there's a long line in front of a stand with Dresden yeast bread which looks tempting, with its melted cheese and sour cream topping. But once the children discover it contains tiny bits of bacon — definitely not halal — they opt instead for a vendor selling gingerbread hearts, glazed apples and cotton candy.
Yaman, 15, orders a bag of candied almonds in the German he is quickly sponging up — and the children begin munching away at the warm, sugary nuts. Little Raghad goes for a ride on a merry-go-round, beaming as she sits on a yellow elephant, its blue-greenish eyes blinking into the winter evening.
Then, giggling and teasing each other, the four children begin to make wishes to Santa Claus.
"If I could make a wish," says 19-year-old Reem, "I'd really love to go to university soon."
"I wish and pray for peace in Syria," says 18-year-old Mohammed, taking a drag on his cigarette.
Raghad's wish is the same as countless German 11-year-olds: "I'd like a Barbie doll."
These happy mornings, Khawla Kareem gets up before dawn, makes herself a strong Arabic coffee and listens to the tunes of Lebanese star Fairuz just like she did in Damascus — explaining that the start to her day would be incomplete without the legendary singer's voice.
She then wakes up her children, and they all walk together to their nearby German class.
Khawla Kareem says it's difficult going back to school after so many years of being a teacher in Syria herself. But the kids are thriving. Reem has taken on the role of teacher's assistant, helping to translate instructions from English into Arabic for other refugee students.
Not all asylum-seekers have been as fortunate as the Habashiehs. The majority of the nearly 1 million migrants who have registered for asylum in Germany so far this year are still stuck in overcrowded reception centers, waiting for months to have their requests processed. Scuffles between different ethnic groups are increasingly common. And there are growing concerns about abuse of women and children in the camps by fellow refugees, security staff, or predators pretending to be volunteers to get inside the shelters.
Meanwhile, the mood in Germany toward the migrants has changed from a spirit of welcome to a more hostile attitude among many. Asylum shelters under construction are frequently vandalized or burned, and those in operation have also been attacked. Far-right parties organize protest rallies against the influx. And workers dealing with the arrivals — police, translators, city employees and social workers — say they're exhausted.
The Habashiehs say they feel the rejection, too. Reem, in particular, says she has received hostile stares from locals because she covers her hair with a hijab, according to Muslim tradition.
The other day, when Raghad approached kids her age — to try out some new German vocabulary — the girls just turned away. "Do you think they will never like me here?" she sadly asked her big sister.
Only about 3,000 — a little over 2 percent — of Zwickau's population of 90,000 are foreigners. Among those, Vietnamese and Russians, who moved to the east German town during communist times, comprise the two biggest groups. There are only 130 Syrians in Zwickau. That explains why a clerk at city hall registered the Habashiehs as having no religious affiliation: "Sorry, Islam does not exist in our computer system," he told the family.
Despite the hardships, the Habashiehs were overjoyed when they learned of their latest turn of fortune: They will have their asylum interview on December 22, three days before Christmas.
"We have high hopes that we will receive refugee status soon," says Reem. Almost all Syrian asylum-seekers get German residency for between one to three years after their interviews.
Once they are legally accepted as refugees, the family will be allowed to leave the town of Zwickau and move around freely in the country.
"Our big dream is still Berlin," Reem says, fondly remembering the cosmopolitan city with its bustling immigrant community, where they spent their first two weeks in Germany. "The dream is blurry and vague and the colors keep changing, but that's where we see our future."
Yaman, the second son, suddenly stops in front of a big Christmas tree at the festive market. Ruffling his carefully gelled hair, he asks for a microphone — as German revelers looked on in bewilderment.
He starts to rap — to the rhythms of a Middle Eastern tune blaring from his cell phone — about what it feels like being a 15-year-old Syrian refugee in Germany:
"I still remember the sound of crowded Damascus, when I was saying goodbye to my friends,
I arrived in a new country and now I'm the foreigner,
Got up tired this morning but nobody is asking how I feel,
Can't take it anymore, I'm looking for a warm country after my own one was destroyed!"