Maher Daboul has realized a dream. Having fled Syria in his fifth year of architecture studies at Damascus University, he headed for Germany, where he sought to complete his degree. He was accepted by the architecture department at Leibniz University of Hanover – but only on the condition that he start over as a first-year student. Daboul didn’t relent, asked to be given an oral exam which he passed with flying colors, and was then admitted as a fifth-year student. His final grade was 100. His graduation project focused on plans for Syria’s reconstruction after the civil war.
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The young man also issued an open letter to “university students around the world” in Arabic, English and German but directed particularly at his fellow Syrians, asking them to follow his lead and show the world “what a great nation we are, whose young people manage to succeed despite the difficult circumstances.”
Daboul is not alone. In a series of Arabic-language programs hosted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and produced by the Shabab Talk group, other young Syrian refugees are also describing their German success stories.
Fahdi, for example, has developed a successful career as a player on a German soccer team. Haya is an outstanding 11th-grader at a German school. Another Syrian refugee describes landing a job as a lifeguard in the city of Tubingen.
For his part, Deiaa Abdullah, a Syrian Kurd, has started a unique project in which he uses a Facebook page that he created to teach fellow refugees German. He admits that he felt pangs of conscience over leaving Syria, when most of his friends were left behind.
Initially, Abdullah tried to form a group called One Euro a Day, which aimed to find donors who would give a euro a day to help people in Syria, but the project was a failure because he said people didn't like the idea of contributing money. It then occurred to him that he could teach refugees enough German that they could manage on the street, in stores and when dealing with government officials. With the help of simple illustrations accompanying the most basic vocabulary, he has attracted thousands of “friends” to the Facebook page and has received hundreds of thank-you messages for his lessons, which also appear on YouTube.
In the process of adjusting to life in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, Syrian refugees face not only major bureaucratic obstacles, but also suspicion on the part of locals – and sometimes even physical harassment. To help address the plight of the newcomers, a group of people have set up a website registered in London, by means of which refugees can find important forms with instructions, job information, and potential questions that they might be asked in a job interview.
A Facebook page called Syrian Refugees in Germany explains how applicants seeking to remain in that country should respond during visa-application interviews. For example, if asked, “Are you being sought by any of the parties to the conflict in Syria?” – applicants are advised to answer with a resounding "no," just as they should if asked whether they have ever been called up for service in the Syrian army.
If asked why they left Syria, the applicants are advised by this site to say that it was because of the war and the fear and the destruction; if asked if they intend to return home after the war, it is suggested that they answer in the affirmative if they want to get asylum status for a year, but negatively if they are seeking a three-year visa.
If asked what they hope to do in Germany, the visa applicants are instructed to say that they want to continue studying and “to work for a better future.” They are also advised to explain that they chose Germany because it is a country where the rule of law prevails and “a free country that respects human rights.”
In this way, it seems that the social networks are replacing the old approach, which necessitated that refugees make their way to the offices of humanitarian aid organizations for this type of advice. Indeed, the social networks now have no substitute, and are creating virtual refugee communities where people can learn from the experiences of others and even organize to assert their power collectively.
Thus, for example, one website started a petition calling on German authorities to expedite the reunification of families. Others provide advice on how to deal with harassment. There are Facebook pages geared to women refugees, and others to university students. Some sites sometimes feature posts from Iraqi or Lebanese refugees seeking explanations from Syrians on German bureaucratic procedures. These include refugees who arrived in Germany before the virtual refugee communities were established.
Syria, which has lost an entire generation of young people, can only hope that the younger generation of Syrians that is putting down roots in Germany and elsewhere in Europe will want to come home and help in the reconstruction of their homeland when the war is over. To date, more than five million refugees have fled the country and another seven million Syrians who stayed behind have been displaced from their homes.
About 360,000 Syrian refugees live in Germany. They represent a huge potential human resource for the land of their birth, as they wait for the moment when the major powers, the regime in Damascus, the militias and gangs and the terrorist organizations in the country arrive at a political arrangement that will allow those who fled to return home.