MAINZ, Germany — After Ryyan Alshebl fled the Syrian civil war, he arrived in Germany without knowing a word of German. Eight years later, he is not only fluent, but also the newly elected mayor of Ostelsheim, a small town in the southwest.
“German society is ready to break new ground,” Alshebl, 29, told NBC News in a phone call this month, adding that his victory was far from “a matter of course” in the city of some 2,500. people.
He joined an elite club when he beat out two other independent candidates this month with 55.4% of the vote. All three filed without partisan affiliation.
And his victory was hailed as a victory for diversity in a country struggling with small but regular neo-Nazi gatherings, as well as a rise in popularity for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and other far-right political groups.
Manne Lucha, integration minister in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Ostelheim is located, said he hoped Alshebl’s election would encourage «more people with a migration background to run for political office.»
Alshebl, the son of a high school teacher and an agricultural engineer from southwestern Syria, said his family was from the Druze minority, an ancient branch of Shiite Islam that has just over 1 million followers worldwide.
After completing high school in Syria, Alshebl began studying finance and banking. But in 2015, four years after the outbreak of a brutal civil war, Alshebl said, she «had no choice» but to leave her homeland.
«Either I had to do military service and thus be forced to be exploited by a belligerent party in the war or leave the country and surrender to an uncertain fate,» he said. «I gave myself to this fate unconditionally and took the escape route.»
“It definitely couldn’t work for the Assad regime,” he added, referring to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
So, together with three friends, he headed for Europe. With just a backpack and some basic belongings, Alshebl said, he crossed the border into Lebanon before heading to Turkey.
From there, he said, he paid the $1,000 his parents had given him to make the «traumatic trip» to the Greek island of Lesbos in a rubber boat.
The island, some 470 miles off the Turkish coast, became the heart of a massive migration wave in 2015 and 2016, when hundreds of thousands of people, many fleeing the war in Iraq and Syria, crossed from Turkey. to Greece, with Lesbos being the most active Greek country. crossing point.
But the wind-tossed waters have also become a vast graveyard, as smuggling ships packed with desperate people sank all too often, stoking tensions between Turkey and Greece, which remain locked in a heated dispute over the maritime borders and migration.
Alshebl said his ship was «designed for a maximum of about 15 people» but had about 48 other refugees on board when it boarded.
“This was the most desperate moment of my trip, especially when we saw water coming into the boat,” Alshebl said.
To reduce weight on the boat, he said, he had to throw his backpack into the water, leaving him with nothing but the clothes on his back. His fear only lessened, he added, when the ship made landfall on Lesbos.
From there, Alshebl said, he took the well-trodden route through the Balkans to central Europe and then on to Germany, a journey he said took eight days.
“We were lucky to receive basic medical support and food at small Red Cross outlets along the route,” he said, adding that it was only when he reached Austria, some 1,200 miles north of Lesbos, that he was able to obtain a new clothes game
Alshebl became one of the more than 1 million people who benefited from then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s doors to asylum seekers in 2015, making the country by far the largest European destination for refugees. Like him, many were Syrians fleeing a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
The move sparked a backlash in Germany and led to the growth of the AfD party, which has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform and benefited from Merkel’s decision at the polls.
After registering in Germany, Alshebl said, he stayed in various refugee centers before settling in the small town of Althengstett.
There, he said, he was able to start an apprenticeship in the city administration. “This is where my interest in local politics began to grow,” she added.
Alshebi said the initial culture shock was mitigated by that great unifying cultural force: soccer.
Alshebi said that growing up in Syria he had become a committed fan of the German Bundesliga, one of Europe’s best-known leagues, and its best team, Bayern Munich. “Of course I followed soccer, which already gives you an indirect impression of the country’s culture,” he said.
It was his boss at the Althengstett council, where Alshebi is responsible for daycare management and digitization, who encouraged him to run for mayor.
So, after starting a campaign focused on social cohesion and municipal infrastructure policy, Alshebl said, he visited more than 200 homes in the run-up to the election.
He was excited that families who have lived in the historic region of Swabia for generations chose to endorse him because they liked his platform.
“Those who voted for me are Germans, Swabians, people who have always lived here,” he said. “The majority voted for the one with the best concept. And this reveals that democracy really works. I can hardly imagine stronger proof that democracy works.»
He added that he had not been concerned about some xenophobic comments online.
Alshebi said her parents, still in Syria, were «overjoyed» if perhaps a bit surprised by her choice. “They didn’t tell me directly, but I don’t think they expected it,” he said, adding that he was able to join them in Lebanon last year for the first time since he left home.
“I am still trying to get my parents the opportunity to visit me in Germany, but it is quite a complex and difficult process,” she said.
«I’m always worried about my parents,» he said, adding that spiraling inflation in Syria, a plummeting currency and severe fuel shortages in both government and rebel-held areas have hit them hard.
For now, though, he said his focus was on his constituents.
And while he supports refugees, he is clear about his job for the next eight years.
“I want to support Ostelsheim,” he said. “The realization that you could also be an example or a role model for someone else is of course also gratifying. There is justifiable pride there. But my job is mainly to move Ostelsheim forward. I do not plan to become a supporter of other refugees. I am the mayor, not a refugee commissioner.»
Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Patrick Smith from London.