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Germany welcomed a million migrants last year, a migration wave that has changed Europe’s biggest economy for good. But what is known about the individuals who make up this massive influx?
The FT spoke to three of them, Ahmad al-Soliman, Abdulaziz Dyab and Nazir Wakil, all Syrians who fled the civil war in their home country to make a new life in Germany. The men’s stories are a work in progress: the FT will follow how they integrate into German society over the coming months and we will return to them for regular updates. Their journey will unfold in the telling: this is the first instalment.
Learn more and read the second instalments here.
Nazir Wakil took a somewhat circuitous route from Syria into Germany — via the Maldives.
He signed up for a premium package offered by Turkey’s human smugglers, a €13,000 product available only to the richest asylum-seekers.
Unlike tens of thousands of other Syrians who have flooded into Europe over the past two years, Nazir did not have to cross the Aegean in a rubber dinghy, walk for days, brave heavy-handed Macedonian border guards and camp out in leaky tents. He simply got on a plane.
Nazir, 43, is an eye doctor from Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in north-eastern Syria which is also home to a Russian naval base. At first it was relatively unaffected by the civil war but that changed as the opposition gained ground. Soon it was coming under regular rocket attack and all men between the ages of 18 and 48 were being called up.
“That’s when I decided to leave,” says Nazir. “Before the war, you would serve two years in the army. Now it’s indefinite. And you can’t buy yourself out.”
He sold his house and medical practice, crossed the Turkish border, only about 15km away, and from the southern Turkish town of Adana flew to Istanbul. There he got in contact with an Iraqi human smuggler who gave him a ticket for the Maldives — a popular destination for would-be refugees, because Syrians do not need a visa to go there.
After a week in the Indian Ocean island nation he booked a flight to Frankfurt, using a fake Italian passport provided by the smuggler. As soon as he arrived in Germany, in December 2014, he threw away the passport. He got on a train to Hamburg, where his cousin lives, and immediately applied for asylum.
Like Ahmad al-Soliman and Abdulaziz Dyab, the other two Syrian refugees in our series, he was sent to a refugee processing centre in Eisenhüttenstadt in the east of the country and soon after moved to Frankfurt an der Oder.
There he waited a total of 11 months for his asylum request to be granted. It was a difficult time as he was unable to study or work, or bring his family from Syria. “It was all banned,” he says. But he began attending German lessons organised by the local volunteer community and looked into getting a job.
He is now navigating Germany’s complex medical bureaucracy. In the next few weeks, he will send his Syrian qualifications to the Brandenburg Medical Chamber, a professional association, for review: they will decide whether he needs to sit more exams or gain more clinical experience before he can practice in Germany.
But Nazir is assuming he will have to spend about four years working as a doctor’s assistant — which he will combine with further studies — and sit a medical licence exam before he can work as an eye doctor here. He is currently doing an internship at a Frankfurt clinic, but this is mostly to improve his German. Under German rules, the clinic where he works will pay for his training.
He is philosophical about all the extra studies. “As a doctor you always have to study,” he says. “And anyway, here I can give my children a future.”
But getting his children to Germany presented a huge logistical challenge. First, they could only join him after he had obtained asylum. Secondly, there are only a few countries in the world where Syrians can book visa appointments at the German embassy in a reasonable timeframe. In Lebanon, for example, they would have had to wait until next March.
The Wakil family went to Malaysia, and Nazir flew out in November last year to join them. They waited four weeks, the costs of their stay covered by donations from a local Frankfurt volunteer group, and finally got their appointment at the embassy. A few days later they were on the plane to Germany.
They were lucky. Within days of their visit to the embassy, Germany changed the rules: Syrians needed to be resident in Malaysia for at least six months before they were eligible for an embassy appointment. The Wakils had missed falling foul of that rule by the skin of their teeth.
The family, Nazir, his wife Heba and four sons — Shadi, aged 14, Mohanad, 10, Basel, 5, and Wael, 2 — all arrived in Frankfurt in January this year. The youngest two children are at kindergarten and the oldest two at school.
The smaller children are picking up German quickly, but the older ones are finding it harder. Authorities originally offered them places in a special class for refugee children: but since they had learnt some German while at home in Syria, Nazir insisted they attend a regular school.
They are making progress, if haltingly: Shadi, the oldest, is about to sit his exams to enter the local Gymnasium, or grammar school.
The whole family currently receives about €1,700 in benefits from the German authorities. The jobcentre in Frankfurt pays the €800 monthly rent on his flat. Nazir has a bank account but no savings: they were all used up on the flight to Europe.
His priority is to ensure his children all get a good German education. But he is also open to returning to Syria one day. “I want to rebuild it after the war,” he says. “It’s my country, after all.”