Five Years After Refugee Wave How Syrians Are Reshaping German Society

A large portion of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 are planning to stay in the country for good. They have changed much over the past five years, and so has the country.
Store owner Mohammad Hanawi: "My entire family is here, and we’ve already built something up.”

Store owner Mohammad Hanawi: "My entire family is here, and we’ve already built something up.”

Foto: Johannes Arlt/ DER SPIEGEL

There’s a problem with German bread. It crumbles when you use it to mop up fried eggplant or bulgur salad from a plate. It’s also difficult to fill with meat, hummus and sauces. Traditional German baking can do a lot, but it can’t do everything.

It’s no surprise, then, that when asked what the most popular item in his grocery store is, Mohammad Hanawi, 20, immediately answers with "chubs arabi,” the Arab pita bread. It is well-suited for dipping, and Syrians eat it with almost every dish. Some even revere it so much that a piece that falls to the floor isn’t thrown out, but rather picked up and kissed and then eaten.

On a Monday in February, Hanawi is sitting behind the counter in a sporty blue and white jacket. At this point in time, COVID-19 still seems like a faraway problem. Next to him, his father is weighing olives for a customer. Hanawi writes down orders for the store in Arabic. He opened the family business in January. He says it’s going great, and that beans, sausages and pickled grape leaves were also popular. "Syrian things. That’s what people were missing here.”

By "here,” he means Uetersen, in the Pinneberg district near Hamburg, in northwest Germany. The city has about 19,000 inhabitants, and until 2015, almost none of them had a Middle Eastern background. Hanwai says his family was one of the first to move to the city. Today, around 300 Syrians live in Uetersen.

New arrivals frequently asked where they could buy the best Arab groceries, he says. "In Uetersen, that didn’t exist.” Hanawi decided to fill the gap in the market. As the family discovered in recent months, this was a pretty crisis-proof decision. Unlike many stores in other sectors, Hanawi didn’t have to close his doors during the lockdown, and the demand for chubs arabi continued, uninterrupted.

The Syrian originally hails from Aleppo. He stopped going to school in Germany after the ninth grade, to open the store. "I don’t need the diploma anymore now,” he says. The whole family pooled its money. They renovated a former bar near a train station and created a little patch of the Middle East in Uetersen.

The growing part of the German population that has Arab roots is visible in many parts of the country. In Berlin, Sonnenallee boulevard has long been known unofficially as "Arab Street” because it is home to so many Middle Eastern cafes and stores. One of the main libraries in the German capital city now has an Arab section, and before the pandemic, the imam at Hamburg’s Al-Nour mosque had to hold his sermon in two shifts to enable all the worshippers to fit inside. These days, though, he reaches most of his mosque’s worshippers via livestream.

Syrians now represent the largest Muslim minority in Germany after Turks. Since 2010, their numbers in the country have risen from around 30,000 to almost 800,000. Most arrived as refugees after the outbreak of the civil war, and they are reshaping the country, much like Turkish migrants did for decades.

Between 2015 and 2018, Syrian women in Germany gave birth to over 65,000 babies. But the Syrian community will continue to grow in the country for other reasons as well. In the past year, around 40,000 Syrians applied for asylum, a small number compared to 2015, when the large wave of refugees came to Germany.

Many of the refugees currently toughing it out in the countries neighboring Syria or on Greek islands now have relatives or friends in Germany and would like to follow them here. It’s impossible to know how many are in that situation. After almost nine years of civil war, the situation in Syria is disastrous, especially in the regions near Idlib and Aleppo, with fighting still ongoing. International observers are warning of catastrophic famine, and Syria is suffering from a massive economic crisis that is now being exacerbated by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The German Foreign Ministry considers every part of the country to be unsafe, and the German Conference of Interior Ministers has extended the moratorium on deportations to the country.

A lot of Syrians have now been living in Germany for so long that they will be able to transition their time-limited protection status into permanent residency authorization this year as long as they are deemed to be well integrated. At that point, they are no longer considered refugees. Experts say the first big wave of applications will happen in 2020. Due to the coronavirus, however, many authorities are working in a limited capacity, and appointments at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and at the immigration authorities were delayed. However, the situation is now starting to normalize.

Anyone with refugee status who wants to become a permanent resident must meet several requirements: They generally have to have lived in Germany legally for five years and speak relatively good German. They need to earn most of their living without support, they can’t have a criminal record and they have to be able to show proof of housing. And the reason for asylum, in this case the war in Syria, must still be valid. Those who earn enough money and speak a high level of German are entitled to apply after three years.

Officials at the German Interior Ministry say that 12,000 Syrian refugees received permanent residency in this way as of mid-2019. There is no central record of how many applications have been filed thus far this year. Three-quarters of the Syrians who are fit for employment in Germany are living either completely or partially on welfare. These people often have a limited chance of getting the desired permanent resident status.

According to the Federal Employment Agency, 42 percent of the refugees from the eight main countries of origin who immigrated since 2015 had a job at the end of last year, but those statistics also include low-paid and marginal part-time employment. It’s also likely that this situation has worsened considerably since the start of the pandemic.

But even those who have barely learned any German -- and are thus far from gaining their foothold on the labor market -- are likely to stay, even if the situation in Syria becomes more stable. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has regained control over large parts of the country, and many refugees fear his unjust regime.

A Home in Exile

Muhannad Qaiconie, 33, has fairly poor chances of getting a permanent residence permit at the moment, even though he has already made a lot of things happen in Germany. Like many other artists and intellectuals from around the world in Berlin, he speaks fluent English, but his German isn’t very good.

Qaiconie founded Baynatna, an Arabic library, together with a German, a Jordanian and two other Syrians. The library is now housed in a space in the Berlin State and Regional Library (ZLB) in the capital city's Mitte district. There had previously been few options in Berlin for people wanting to buy or borrow books in Arabic. "We wanted to create a home for ourselves in exile,” says Qaiconie. They began with a few hundred books they had been given by friends and acquaintances. There are now almost 3,000 books in the collection.

They are arranged on simple wooden shelves: fiction, non-fiction, comics. The floor is covered with long, colorful patchwork carpets. The room is nice, bright, but still closed to visitors because of COVID-19. Anyone wanting to borrow something simply needs to reserve the title online and pick it up.

"We're hoping that everything will gradually return to normal, and that we'll soon be able to offer other things,” says Qaiconie. He and his colleagues organized numerous workshops and events before the start of the pandemic, including the Arab-German Literature Days last fall. Qaiconie says they wanted to show how diverse and beautiful Arabic literature can be. Unfortunately, he argues, the language is too often associated with terrorism. "Sometimes, it’s enough for you to speak Arabic in the subway for people to look at you suspiciously.”

"Baynatna,” the name the library has been given, means "among us” in Arabic, which, according to the founders, doesn’t reflect a desire for people to segregate themselves. Instead, they argue, it’s about creating a familiar framework, also for intercultural exchange. "It would be nice if the Arabic language could find its place in the German cultural scene,” Qaiconie says.

Muhannad Qaiconie, student: "We wanted to create a home for ourselves in exile.”

Muhannad Qaiconie, student: "We wanted to create a home for ourselves in exile.”

Foto: Milos Djuric/ DER SPIEGEL

The language has long since arrived in everyday German life. In the streets of largely Muslim neighborhoods, one can hear both Turkish and Arabic. Terms like "yalla!” (hurry up) and "habibi” (my love), are also becoming part of the German language.

Since the influx of refugees in Germany in 2015, there has been strong interest in Arabic courses at German continuing education schools, and some high schools now also offer Arabic classes. In Hamburg, for example, students graduating from college-prep high schools also now have the option of selecting Arabic as one of the subjects of their high school completion exams.

Baynatna was initially housed in a refugee hostel, but now it’s part of the Berlin Central and Regional Library, which some might see as a sign that Syrians have become an accepted part of German society.

But Qaiconie is less confident about that. He fears that the right-wing populists with the Alternative for Germany (AFD) party will gain in stature. "Who can guarantee that we won’t all get deported in the end?” he asks. For someone who has witnessed his home country sink into civil war, a lot seems possible. The attack in Hanau  earlier this year, in which a racist gunman killed nine people because they had immigrant backgrounds, made many nervous.

Qaiconie studied to become an interpreter in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia, with the goal of becoming an English translator. After arriving in Berlin, he received a scholarship to study at the Berlin branch of Bard College, an American university, and completed a bachelor’s degree in ethics and politics. He plans to begin a master’s degree in program September.

"At first, I liked this whole 'refugees welcome’ atmosphere,” he says. "But at some point, I realized that for many people in Germany, we are always just 'the refugee.’ As if we were a homogenous mass.”

What distresses him most, though, is the fact that his mother and sister live in Turkey and that he isn’t allowed to bring them to Germany. The German Embassy in Turkey wouldn’t even grant them visas for a short visit to Berlin.

Like so many other refugees, Qaiconie needs to live with the fact that his family has been torn apart, a source of melancholy for many Syrians in Germany.

The rules for bringing family members into Germany are strict. Only their closest relatives are allowed to join them, if at all. Adults can apply to bring their spouses and underage children, and minors can usually only apply for their parents, but not for their siblings, no matter their age. It often takes months for an application to be accepted and processed.

In 2018, 21,000 Syrians came to Germany through the family reunification process. Human rights organizations have accused the German authorities of slowing or obstructing the process in order to limit the influx, even for those who are entitled to it. The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the situation.

A Longing for Family

Amal Alburs, 41, barely recognized her son Mousa at the airport in Düsseldorf when he arrived. They had written and spoken via WhatsApp every week, she says: "But that’s different. The day I arrived, he suddenly had a beard.”

She let him leave when he was 12 years old, and now he’s a 16-year-old teenager. She needs to get to know her son again, a boy who has built up his own life in Germany over the past four years. Mousa has friends she doesn’t know. He speaks a language she doesn’t understand, and he feels at home in a city that intimidates her. She doesn’t even know what he likes to eat. Mousa says he doesn’t like Syrian food. "Far too much meat. I can’t even stand the smell.”

When the Alburs family tried to make it to Germany via Turkey, they split up into two cars as they drove to the coast from which their boat was set to leave, Amal Alburs recalls. She was in one car with her husband and two of their sons, while Mousa and his cousins were in the other. The vehicle containing the parents was stopped by the Turkish police, but the boys made it through. They managed to make their way to Germany, while the rest of the family got held back.

For a while, Mousa lived with an uncle near Leer, a city in the northern German state of Lower Saxony, but after an argument, he moved into a group home. Last July, he was able to bring his mother. Since then, they have rented a small apartment in Leer, where Mousa is going to secondary school. He would have liked to graduate in the summer, but school was cancelled too often in the past weeks and months because of the coronavirus. Mousa will repeat the ninth grade after the holidays, after which he wants to become a car mechanic.

A few trees are growing between the red brick buildings in the apartment block. Some doorbells bear Arabic names. Amal Alburs rarely leaves the house, but this was already the case before the pandemic. "I’ve always told her to go out,” says Mousa, "but she doesn’t have the courage.”

Amal Alburs speaks only a few words of German, but her son is almost fluent. She wants to learn the language, but she says she won’t have the energy for it as long as her other children are still in Turkey.

Mousa had submitted applications for the entire family to be reunited. The German authorities approved the visas for his mother and father, but not for his three siblings. The youngest, Asiel, is only four years old. The parents decided that the mother would fly to Germany so Mousa would finally not be alone after all these years. The father stayed behind in Turkey with the other children.

In early June, Amal Alburs received news from BAMF that she would enjoy so-called subsidiary protection in Germany from now on because she was "threatened with serious harm in her country of origin.” This means that she can now submit an application for family reunification herself. But it is unclear how long the procedure will take or whether it will ultimately be successful.

Amal Alburs cries a lot. "Every time we talk on WhatsApp, my little one asks me when I’m finally going to bring her to me,” she says. She’s worried about her child. A few days ago, she says, Asiel was playing on the street and was almost run over by a car. "I’ve been having panic attacks ever since, because I fear something bad might happen to her before she makes it to Germany.”

Amal’s smartphone is her most important link to the outside world. She spends a lot of time on Facebook, keeping up with the situation in Syria and Turkey. "It would be better if my mother wasn’t constantly reading things on Facebook,” Mousa says. "The Syrians are constantly posting horrible images from the war. That just makes you sad. I don’t want to see that.”

Amal Alburs, housewife: "Every time we talk on WhatsApp, my little one asks me when I’m finally going to bring her to me.”

Amal Alburs, housewife: "Every time we talk on WhatsApp, my little one asks me when I’m finally going to bring her to me.”

Foto: Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/ DER SPIEGEL

The family comes from Idlib, where the situation is terrible at the moment. Amal’s parents still live there.

"I pray a lot,” she says. "That’s all I can do. All that happens is Allah’s will. He gives me strength.” Tears run down her cheeks as she talks. "Without strong faith, you would perish.”

Many refugees seek comfort in mosques in Germany, where they can meet other people with similar backgrounds and where imams do counseling work. But Amal doesn’t visit them because she believes Muslim houses of prayer should be reserved for men. She grew up in a patriarchal environment, with a father who had 17 children by two wives.

A New Islam

Women are as welcome as men at the Al-Nour mosque in Hamburg, but at the moment, at most 150 worshippers are allowed to be in the building - and only with advance notice – because of the coronavirus. The ritual washing in the mosque is banned, everyone has to bring their own prayer rug, and the room is disinfected after each sermon.

A separate loft room has been set up for the women, even during normal times. It has a good view of the mihrab, the prayer niche. The room is large and bright, with stained-glass windows.

"Before the coronavirus, it was usually full here on Fridays,” says Daniel Abdin, the chair of the mosque association. After the arrival of the refugees in 2015, he says, the number of people praying at the mosque more than doubled. Almost 2,500 people were here every Friday, he says. Currently, most people watch the sermon online by livestream. For months, the imam could only offer counseling over the phone, but he recently began taking appointments in his office once again.

The mosque is very popular among Syrians, partly because Abdin and the imam both originally came from Lebanon. They speak almost the same Arabic dialect as the Syrians, and preach in German as well as in Arabic. "And our mosque is really very beautiful and multicultural,” says Abdin.

It was less than two years ago that the mosque moved to Horn from a former underground car park near the main train station. "We are very happy to be here now,” says Abdin. The mosque is housed in a former Protestant church. From the outside, the building still looks like a Christian house of worship, only the cross on the tower has been replaced by the Arabic inscription, "Allah.” The remodeling was financed by donations, including money from Kuwait. "It was important for us to integrate well into the neighborhood,” says Abdin. Everyone was welcome. "We Muslims are a part of this society. It is becoming more and more normal,” he says. "But for that, we have to become more visible.”

Around 5 million Muslims now live in Germany. Islam, which has been strongly shaped by Turkish migrants in Germany for decades, has become more diverse thanks to the refugees. Abdin says there’s a better balance between cultures now.

Lamya Kaddor, an Islamic scholar from Duisburg whose parents immigrated to Germany from Syria in the 1970s, agrees. She says she’s glad that the "Islamic monoculture” which had long existed in Germany is now a thing of the past. In contrast to Turkey, she says, religion in Syria isn’t as strongly institutionalized. Ditib -- the mosque association that operates around 900 houses of worship in Germany -- is subject to directives from the Turkish government. The Turkish Muslim movement Milli Görüş is also dominated by political goals.

"For most Syrian Muslims, faith is a private matter,” says Kaddor. She says she knows many Syrians who are very pious and conservative in their religious beliefs, but nevertheless open to people of other faiths. Syria is a multiethnic state in which many ethnic groups and people of different religions lived together largely in peace before the war. "This is a good prerequisite for successful integration,” the Islamic scholar says.

Becoming German

It’s a week ago Friday, and the door to Hanawi’s grocery store is wide open. Mohammad Hanawi’s father is sitting behind the counter and chatting with an acquaintance. His son isn’t coming into the shop at the moment and is difficult to reach, he says. "Mohammad has better things to do right now.” In February, Hanawi said that he wants to start a family as soon as possible, since he’s already 20 years old. His life plan doesn’t include returning to Syria. "There’s still war going on there,” he said. "My entire family is here, and we’ve already built something up.”

He was 15 years old when he came to Germany. He has spent a quarter of his young life in Schleswig-Holstein, and he hopes it will only be a matter of time before he becomes a German citizen.

Hanawi should now be very close to this goal. If his marriage proves stable, he could be naturalized in two years. As his father explains, Mohammad didn't marry a Syrian woman. "His wife is German.”