MAINZ, Germany — After fleeing the civil war in Syria, Ryyan Alshebl arrived in Germany without speaking a word of German. Eight years later, not only is he fluent, but he’s 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 in the city of about 2,500 was anything but “taken for granted”.
He joined an elite club when he defeated two other independent candidates with 55.4% of the vote this month. All three stood without party affiliation.
And his win was hailed as a victory for diversity in a country struggling with small but regular neo-Nazi gatherings, as well as a surge 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 migrant background to run for political office”.
Alshebl, the son of a high school teacher and an agricultural engineer from southwestern Syria, Alshebl said his family is from the Druze minority — an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam that has just over 1 million adherents worldwide.
After graduating from high school in Syria, Alshebl began studying finance and banking. But in 2015, four years after a brutal civil war broke out, Alshebl said he had “no choice” but to leave his homeland.
“Either I had to do military service and thereby be exploited by a warring faction in the war, or I had to leave the country and face an uncertain fate,” he said. “I surrendered unconditionally to this fate and set off on the escape route.”
“I definitely could not serve for the Assad regime,” he added, referring to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
So, together with three friends, he made his way to Europe. With just 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, which his parents had given him, to make the “traumatic journey” in an inflatable boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The island, some 470 miles off the Turkish coast, became the center of a massive wave of migration in 2015 and 2016 when hundreds of thousands of people, many fleeing wars in Iraq and Syria, crossed from Turkey to Greece, with Lesbos becoming the busiest Greek was border crossing.
But the windswept waters have also become a vast graveyard, as smuggler boats full of desperate people sank too often, stoking tensions between Turkey and Greece, which remain locked in a heated dispute over maritime borders and migration.
Alshebl said his boat was “designed for a maximum of about 15 people,” but had about 48 other refugees on board when it boarded.
“That was the greatest moment of desperation during my trip, especially when we saw water entering the boat,” Alshebl said.
To reduce the weight in the boat, he said, he had to throw his backpack in the water, leaving him nothing but the clothes he was wearing. His fear only subsided when the boat touched down on Lesvos, he added.
From there, Alshebl said, he made the well-worn route across the Balkans to central Europe and then to Germany, a journey that took him eight days.
“We were lucky to get basic medical supplies and groceries at small Red Cross outlets along the route,” he said, adding that it was only in Austria, some 1,200 miles north of Lesvos, that he was able to arrive with a bunch of new clothes.
Alshebl became one of 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 Syrians have been fleeing a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
The move sparked a backlash in Germany and fueled the growth of the AfD party, which has fought on an anti-immigration platform and benefited from Merkel’s decision at the ballot box.
After registering in Germany, Alshebl said he stayed in several refugee shelters before settling in the small town of Althengstett.
There he could start an apprenticeship as a city administrator. “This is where my interest in local politics started to grow,” he added.
Alshebi said the initial culture shock was alleviated by this great unifying cultural force – football.
Alshebi said he grew up in Syria and became a staunch fan of the German Bundesliga, one of Europe’s most famous leagues, and their top team Bayern Munich. “Of course I followed football, so you get an indirect impression of the country’s culture,” he said.
His boss at Althengstett town hall, where Alshebi is responsible for daycare management and digitization, encouraged him to run for mayor.
After launching a campaign focused on social cohesion and local infrastructure policies, Alshebl said he visited over 200 households in the run-up to the election.
He was thrilled that families who have lived in the historic region of Swabia for generations have chosen 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 that shows that democracy really works. I can hardly think of stronger proof that democracy works.”
He added that some xenophobic comments online didn’t bother him.
Alshebi said his parents, who are still in Syria, are “over the moon” if perhaps a little surprised by his choice. “They didn’t tell me directly, but I don’t think they expected it,” he said, adding that he was able to meet with them in Lebanon for the first time since leaving last year.
“I’m still trying to give my parents the opportunity to visit me in Germany, but it’s quite a complex and difficult process,” he said.
“I always worry about my parents,” he said, adding that Syria’s rising inflation, a currency collapse and severe fuel shortages in both government-controlled and rebel-held areas have hit them hard.
For now, though, he’s focused on his constituents.
And as he supports refugees, he is clear about what his task is for the next eight Years.
“I want to support Ostelsheim,” he said. “The realization that I could also be a role model or role model for someone else is of course also gratifying. There is justifiable pride. But my job is above all to bring Ostelsheim forward. I have no intention of standing up for other refugees. I’m a mayor, not a refugee commissioner.”
Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Patrick Smith from London.