Many Syrian refugees can say their move to Germany was life-changing, but for wheelchair-user Anas al-Hakim it has meant freedom and a new role in community service.
The 25-year-old moved from Damascus to Berlin in 2013 and founded a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Make it German.
It provides free advice to fellow Syrians and other Arabic-speakers new to Germany on all aspects of life, including study opportunities and finding a job.
Anas was born with craniofacial fibrous dysplasia, a genetic disease that affects the shape of bones and their development.
He was able to walk when he was a child, but as he grew older, his condition became worse.
In 2003, he travelled to Germany for the first time for medical treatment. But spinal surgery left him permanently paralysed and wheelchair-bound.
“Germany changed my life twice, once in 2003 and again in 2013,” he says.
Trapped by war
Anas found it hard to lead an independent life in Syria, despite the support of family and friends.
Wheelchair-friendly infrastructure did not exist in Damascus, restricting his freedom and opportunities.
His situation only got worse as the war intensified – he felt increasingly trapped.
“I had no choice but to leave. I wanted to pursue my goals and the situation in Syria wasn’t helping me,” he says.
It was a struggle to obtain a visa. Anas had to travel to neighbouring Lebanon to apply through the German embassy there.
In December 2013, Anas moved to Germany to study for an undergraduate degree in computer science at the Technical University of Berlin. He travelled by himself. His family could not join him – they could not afford the travel expenses, nor obtain visas.
Germany took in a record 890,000 migrants and refugees in 2015. But last year the number of asylum seekers fell to 280,000, after the Balkan route was closed. Syrians formed 37% of asylum applicants in 2016 – by far the largest group.
The influx has put some public services under pressure and caused political tensions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticised for her “open door” policy, though many Germans have shown generosity towards the newcomers.
Initially Anas struggled with the language and laws, but did not let that hold him back.
How did he feel about Berlin? “It was love at first sight,” he says.
He admires the German culture and work ethic. “Unlike Syrians, Germans are direct and straightforward,” he says.
“Being able to move freely is the most important thing. Berlin gives me the freedom of movement I always wanted and I feel independent, unlike my situation back in Damascus.”
Physical barriers are no longer an issue for Anas. He crosses the city in his wheelchair, goes to university every day and sees himself as an active member of society.
He has made many friends in Berlin and is always busy with university or social events. His only concern is his financial situation.
As the Syrian war grinds on, Anas’ financial burdens are increasing, but he no longer wants to ask his parents for money. He has some income from work and help from his friends.
In April 2016, he and a group of friends launched Make it German, for Arabic-speaking immigrants.
“Our goal is to build a bridge between new arrivals and German society and help them be on the right track,” Anas says.
Recently the NGO launched a social media campaign encouraging Syrians to donate blood, as an “act of solidarity and a sign of co-existence”.
It organises web seminars via Skype, where Syrian guest speakers and others share their experiences of making Germany their home.
Future in Germany
At the moment, the NGO is self-funded, through the team’s savings and earnings from their day jobs.
To keep costs low the volunteers mainly work from home, but Anas hopes they will soon be able to rent office space.
Ashraf, a Syrian student, praised Make it German for the advice he got about his course. “They provided me with all the information I needed, along with supporting documents from official sources.”
Yusra, another student, said the NGO’s advice about applying for medical school was useful, “however, I felt that not all my questions were addressed”.
Anas has not seen his parents – still in Damascus – for more than three years. “Although we are not together, I think of them every day, but I can’t go back to Syria. I worry about them, but my life is here now.”
Even if the war were to end, Anas would like to settle in Germany. He wants to finish his studies, while continuing to help other Syrians.
Produced by UGC and Social News Team