Thousands of refugees continue to stream into Germany each day, with most seeking safety from the wars gripping their homelands while hoping to find a future in a country that is largely unknown to them.
Yousef Joni is in a hurry.
After shepherding his mother, sister and two younger brothers along the perilous journey from war-ravaged Syria to the safety of a Berlin emergency shelter, the 22-year-old student is now keen to get them settled quickly in Germany.
“My first priority is to learn the language,” Joni said in between puffs on a cigarette. “I have to find a house.”
“I’m a very good student so I’m open to everything,” said Joni, who is surrounded by a group of fellow Syrians – each wearing a shelter ID wristband as they talk about how they can find a future in a country that they know very little about.
Luxembourg could be the place to go, one suggested, until it was pointed out that it was a separate country and not part of Germany.
A one-time law student, Joni and his family have spent the last 10 days in the gymnasium-cum-refugee shelter, resting before embarking on what they hope will be the last stage in their arduous journey to a new life – a bus trip across Germany to the grimy post-industrial town of Dortmund, where they have friends.
“I’ll have to see what it’s like before I decide if I want to stay,” said Joni.
Located in a wooded area on the outskirts of Berlin near the vast Olympic Stadium built by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, the Horst Korber gymnasium is now a temporary home to about 500 refugee families, including 200 children. An adjacent sports complex houses about 500 single men.
“This is their first window into Germany,” said Friedrich Kiesinger, who oversees operations at the shelter.
An estimated 1,000 refugees arrive in Berlin each day. They are sent to various accommodation points that the city has organized to deal with the influx of newcomers. This now includes the disused hangar in the German capital’s old Tempelhof airport.
Most refugees stay about one week in the Horst Korber shelter before being sent to more permanent accommodation, as another 100 or 150 people arrive here each day, who are then registered, given health checks and often immunized. Many need immediate medical attention, such as for acute dental problems.
Psychologists are also on hand. Shelter officials estimate that about 50 per cent of those staying at the gymnasium are traumatized by their experience of war and the-often terrifying journey they have undertaken.
Officials at the gymnasium say that there has not been any outbreak of violence here between refugee groups that has plagued other shelters in Germany almost daily.
The main problem they have faced has been coming to grips with the cultural differences among the refugees, even down to how children should be cared for.
There is also a very definite hierarchy among the refugees at the shelter, with the Syrians at the top, partly because their case for asylum as war refugees is clear cut.
In addition, Syrians tend to outnumber the other groups with many having the resources to fund a new life in Germany.
For the most part, however, the refugees at the gymnasium appeared oblivious to the political turmoil that their presence in Germany has unleashed outside the shelter’s gates and across the country.
After opening Germany’s borders to refugees in early September by lifting European asylum rules, Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced enormous political pressure as she battles to find a solution to the crisis with the total numbers entering Germany this year expected to top 1 million.
The scale of the influx has sparked a rift in the ranks of her conservative political bloc and pitched European states against each other over how to stem the tide of migrants and overcome the bottlenecks along Europe’s borders that is threatening to turn into a humanitarian disaster.
But those gathered at the gymnasium had nothing but praise and thanks for Merkel and Germany for taking them in after their lives were upended by the conflict that started in 2011 and shows little sign of getting resolved.
They said that some Syrians still planning to flee to Germany have already begun German lessons.
“My dream is to live in peace,” said 31-year-old Ahmed al-Aaraji, a former Syrian soldier who fled the horrors of life in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
Al-Aaraji, his wife and two children now find themselves in limbo as they wait for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to process their asylum claims.
But for most of the refugees there is no going back to Syria.
“My country is caught in a very bad war,” said Joni, the student. “I don’t see a future there.”