Friday

12th Apr 2024

Interview

Syrian mayor in Germany speaks out against AfD

  • In 2015, Syrians could enter Turkey without a visa – although this changed within a matter of months after Ryyan Alshebl left his home country (Photo: Danny Callaghan)
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Ryyan Alshebl left Syria in 2015 amid the ongoing war. Eight years later, he was elected mayor of the German town Ostelsheim — aged 29. His vision includes citizen engagement programmes, climate-neutrality and building a cohesive society.

Since Alshebl's election, public support for Germany's 'traffic-light' coalition government of the social democrats, Greens, and liberals, has steadily declined — while far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is poised to win regional elections later this year. The past months have, in response, seen millions of people take to Germany's streets to protest against right-wing racist extremism.

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  • In 2023, Ryyan Alshebl, a Syrian refugee, was elected mayor of the southern German village of Ostelsheim (Photo: Wikimedia)

From his office looking out over Ostelsheim, Ryan Alshebl spoke in an interview with EUobserver. He discussed his journey, the threat of extremism and humanitarian asylum systems.

Widespread conflict broke out in Syria from 2011 onwards, but it wasn't until 2015 that you left your home country. What caused you to leave?

Initially, there was an air of optimism. I had hoped the majority demonstrating against authoritarian rule would forge the path to democracy. But the exact opposite happened. Violence increased from both sides. Of course, you can have your own philosophy on whether this is the right way to resist.

By 2014, the situation had intensified. I wasn't sure if I could finish studying — it became dangerous to even attend the university. I was then confronted with the issue that if I was no longer studying, I had to join the military. To me, this was unimaginable. In peace times, the military would never have been an option. During a war? Absolutely not. Joining the military meant killing, being killed, or potentially both.

The remaining option was to leave the country. Through media reports, I became aware that many people were heading to western Europe. I wanted to go to Germany — partially because it had a strong economy but also due to the political message being broadcasted back then: a message of safety and welcomeness.

Having decided to leave Syria, how did you reach Germany?

In 2015, Syrians could enter Turkey without a visa — although this changed within a matter of months after I left. I flew from Damascus to Istanbul. From Turkey, it wasn't possible for me to enter the EU via "legal" routes. Common practice was to speak with a smuggler who would provide a spot on a small boat in exchange for a few thousand dollars. This came with the apparent risk of not surviving the journey — which is all too often the case, still to this day sadly.

I arrived on Lesbos as someone who had entered Greek territory irregularly. I signed a contract legitimising my arrival and confirming that I would leave Greece within a few days or weeks. Almost everyone signed these contracts — no one wanted to stay in Greece.

Did you receive legal advice upon arrival?

Nothing to speak of. They were prepared in the sense they knew every day people would arrive and apply for this document. It was made clear that the Greek government didn't want us here, we certainly weren't welcomed warmly.

With this document, I could move legally. I booked a ferry ticket to northern Greece before travelling through Balkan countries to Austria.

Having arrived in Germany, you learned the language, trained as a civil servant before running as an independent candidate for mayor in Ostelsheim — where you won a clear majority. After the results were announced, you said "Ostelsheim has set an example for the rest of Germany". What did you mean by this?

The basic principle that anyone can run for public office applies if you're a so-called "Bio-Deutscher" — someone born, grown up and socialised here. For someone born elsewhere, who had actually only been here for eight years, it's completely different. People intuitively question origin, as opposed to qualification and ability.

There was also the issue of rightwing extremism. It was clear that a section of people immediately disqualified me. Some even published propaganda denouncing me as an extremist, a jihadist.

But yet dozens reached out to say they believed in me and found what I was doing incredible. The fundamental trend was overwhelmingly positive. The citizens of Ostelsheim sent a message of "Weltoffenheit" — an openness to the world — by voting rationally, not ideologically.

Polls suggest almost one-in-five people in Germany would vote for the AfD. Do you see Germany's democracy as threatened by rightwing extremism?

I think we must act carefully and consciously. Although Germany has an entrenched rule of law, an extremist party like the AfD could conceivably deconstruct the fundamentals of the democratic system if they were to hold office — but only over a long period of time. We should not discount this eventuality.

On the other hand, one-fifth is not even close to a majority. In spite of the current polarisation in society, 80 percent of people in Germany have said that extremism is not an option for them.

But the rise of the AfD does indicate a more pervasive embrace of extremism. Would you agree?

I think it's important to recognise that today's AfD party talks in exactly the same way as the CSU did in the 1980s. Almost every society has a segment which ostracises foreigners — or the "other" — and seeks rhetoric akin to that which the AfD publishes. Those who would've voted for CSU in the 1980s are now voting for AfD.

Beyond the AfD, the topic of migration has — and continues to be — exploited in Germany and across the EU. Are European states fulfilling their humanitarian duty to provide a fair and just asylum process?

No. A humanitarian system requires ensuring a legitimate asylum process for each individual. If this process takes place under unfair circumstances or becomes constrained so that a just case is not heard, that is no longer a fulfilment of humanitarian duty.

What does this mean for people arriving in Europe who are seeking asylum?

From my experience, people don't flee for fun. They leave their homes because the situation in their country forces them to — regardless of the conditions in countries like Germany.

Yet in Europe, we rarely discuss the causes of displacement. We focus on the symptoms, not the root of the issue. Fighting symptoms is not sustainable. So a policy like outsourcing asylum to third countries might temporarily reduce asylum numbers, and in the process worsen the lives of those fleeing precarious situations. But these measures won't provide long-term solutions as long as the conditions in origin countries continue to be unstable.

During last year's election campaign, the topic of your origin faded into the background and discussions focused on policies. What vision do you have at a local level?

Firstly, an engaged community. We're in the process of asking each citizen how our town can be improved and what is especially important to them. Based on this information, we are developing a roadmap under the name "Ostelsheim 2030" — outlining aims for all areas of society, from childcare to public transport.

My primary goal is to be one of the first climate-neutral villages in [the state of] Baden-Württemburg. We have high levels of wind and solar power as well as ambitious citizens. This is not a hope, it is a very realistic target.

At international level, Europeans are voting in EU elections in June. Which role should Germany play as the bloc's largest member state?

Amid the war in Ukraine, an energy crisis and the rightward shift in countries such as Italy and Sweden, Germany has remained moderate. Despite the uncertainty and societal division, Germany's compass continues to point in a central direction.

At the end of Obama's time in office, he said Angela Merkel was the leader of the free world. I believe this role will remain with Germany for the foreseeable future.

Author bio

Danny Callaghan is a freelance journalist from Bristol, based in Berlin. He covers migration, climate and public health policy.

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