MAINZ, Germany — After Ryyan Alshebl fled Syria’s civil war, he arrived in Germany without knowing a word of German. Eight years on, he’s not only fluent but also the recently 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 town of about 2,500 people.
He joined an elite club when he beat two other independent candidates this month with 55.4% of the vote. All three stood without party affiliation.
And his win was greeted as a victory for diversity in a country that struggles with small, but regular neo-Nazi gatherings as well as a surge in popularity of 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, said he hoped Alshebl’s election would encourage “more people with a migration history to run for political office.”
The son of a high school teacher and an agricultural engineer from southwest Syria, Alshebl said his family was from the Druze minority — an ancient offshoot of Shiite Islam that boasts 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, he had "no choice" but to leave his homeland.
“Either I had to do military service and thus be forced to be exploited by a warring party in the war or leave the country and surrender to an uncertain fate,” he said. “I gave myself up to this fate unconditionally and set off on the escape route."
“I definitely could not serve for Assad regime,” he added, referring to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
So together with three friends, he headed for Europe. With only a backpack and a few basic belongings, Alshebl said, he crossed the border into Lebanon before making his way to Turkey.
From there, he said, he paid $1,000 that his parents had given him to make the “traumatic journey” to the Greek island of Lesbos in a rubber boat.
The island, around 470 miles off the Turkish coast, became the heart of a massive migration wave in 2015 and 2016, as hundreds of thousands of people, many fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, crossed from Turkey into Greece, with Lesbos the busiest Greek crossing point.
But the wind-tossed waters also became a vast cemetery as smuggling boats packed with desperate people too often sank, stoking tensions between Turkey and Greece, who remain locked in a heated dispute over maritime boundaries and migration.
Alshebl said his boat was “designed for a maximum of about 15 people” but had around 48 other refugees on it when it embarked.
“This was the biggest moment of despair during my travel, especially when we saw that water was coming into the boat,” Alshebl said.
To reduce weight in the boat, he said, he had to toss his rucksack into the waters, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. His fear only subsided, he added, when the boat touched ground on Lesbos.
From there, Alshebl said, he made the well-trodden route through the Balkans into central Europe and then into Germany, a journey he said took him eight days.
“We were lucky that we got some basic medical support and food at small Red Cross outlets along the route,” he said, adding that it was only when he got to Austria, around 1,200 miles north of Lesbos, that he was able to get a set of new clothes.
Alshebl became one of the more than 1 million people to benefit 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 profited at the ballot box from Merkel's decision.
After registering in Germany, Alshebl said, he stayed in several refugee centers, before he settled in the small town of Althengstett.
There, he said, he was able to start an apprenticeship in city administration. “This is where my interest in local politics started to grow,” he added.
Alshebl said the initial culture shock was lessened by that great unifying cultural force — soccer.
Alsheb slaid that growing up in Syria he had become a committed fan of the German Bundesliga, one of Europe’s best-known leagues, and its top team, Bayern Munich. “Of course I followed football, which already gives you an indirect impression of the culture of the country,” he said.
Apprenticeship to office
It was his boss at the Althengstett town hall, where Alshebl is responsible for day care management and digitalization, who encouraged him to run for mayor.
So after starting a campaign centered on social cohesion and municipal infrastructure policy, Alshebl said, he visited over 200 homes in the lead-up to the election.
He was enthused that families who have lived in the historic region of Swabia for generations chose to back 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 better concept. And this reveals that democracy really works. I can hardly imagine stronger proof that democracy works.”
He added that he hadn’t been worried by a few online xenophobic comments.
Alshebl said his parents, still in Syria, were “overjoyed,” if perhaps a little surprised by his election. “They didn’t say it directly to me, but I don’t think that they expected it,” he said, adding that he was able to reunite with 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 a rather complex and difficult process,” he said.
“I am always worried about my parents,” he said, adding that spiraling inflation in Syria, a currency plunge and severe fuel shortages, in both government-run and rebel-held areas, have hit them hard.
For the moment, though, he said his focus was on his constituents.
And while he does support refugees, he is clear about what his job is for the next eight years.
“I want to support Ostelsheim,” he said. “The realization that I could also be an example or role model for someone else is, of course, also gratifying. There’s justifiable pride there. But my job is mainly to move Ostelsheim forward. I am not planning to become a supporter for other refugees. I’m the mayor, not a refugee commissioner.”
Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Patrick Smith from London.