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Syrian refugee pays tribute to Angela Merkel for ‘opening doors’ to attend university

Fadi Zahrawi says Angela Merkel (inset) opened doors for thousands of refugees in Germany. Source: Supplied by source/AAP

Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as German leader will be remembered as a period where the fortunes of thousands of refugees changed, according to Syrian Fadi Zahrawi.

He tells SBS Arabic24 that it was his childhood dream to study at a German university, and it was realised as a result of policy changes that allowed him to stay in the European powerhouse after arriving in 2014.

As Angela Merkel prepares to step down as German chancellor when her country goes to the polls on September 26, Zahrawi reflects on the journey from Syria which almost cost his life.



  • Syrian refugees Fadi Zahrawi believes outgoing German leader Angela Merkel "opened doors" for refugees in the country.
  • He left Syria in 2014 and survived a dangerous boat trip from Libya.
  • He realised his dream of attending a German university and thanks Merkel's policies for helping him.

He was 19 at the time he fled his beloved homeland. 

 “I’ll never forget my final days in Syria. The situation was rapidly deteriorating so I had to leave on my own,” he says.

“I used to follow the news of Germany, dreaming of going there even before the war had broken in Syria.”

AAP Image/AP Photo/Michael Sohn, pool
Angela Merkel has been regarded as the world's most powerful women by political pundits.
AAP Image/AP Photo/Michael Sohn, pool

The civil war in Syria has been raging for more than a decade and nearly seven million people have either been granted refugee status or are seeking asylum.

More than 5.5 million people have found refuge in neighbouring countries, primarily in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while Germany has accepted more than 800,000.

Zahrawi first headed to Turkey and obtained residency, but he never planned on staying.

“The only way to Europe was through immigration by sea.

“I then decided to head to Algeria as I can enter the country without a visa.”

Zahrawi in Turkey.
Fadi Zahrawi

From Algeria, he was smuggled to Libya and remained for two weeks before embarking on a perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

It was this “horrific” leg of his journey that “drastically” changed his life, he says.

“I was the only one of my family to leave Syria. I was all alone. Everyone was feeling down.

“There were three boats, the first one arrived safely and the second one capsized in the sea with 183 people on board. We were staying illegally in Libya and would have been deported back to Syria if caught.

"It took us 19 hours in the open sea before we were rescued by the Italian coast guard.”

Zahrawi is now studying at a German university.
Fadi Zahrawi

Although smugglers informed Zahrawi that there would be only 20 on-board, he says there were around 230 on a small vessel.

He says the captain was inexperienced, and the engine blew up halfway through the trip, which saw the boat begin taking on water.

“We had to empty water with our hands and plastic bags. The sound of women and children crying is still echoing in my head till this day.”

Once in southern Italy, Zahrawi was granted a seven-day visa.

He took this opportunity to travel north and boarded a train from Milan to Paris, before crossing into Germany.

We had no money and had to rely on people’s help to buy tickets. From Paris, I took the train heading to Hamburg in Germany. I arrived on the 4th of August 2014.

A year after he arrived, on August 25, 2015, Chancellor Merkel chose to allow Syrian refugees who had already registered elsewhere in the European Union to register in Germany, temporarily suspending an EU law that requires asylum seekers to be returned to the first country they entered.

The new policy meant that Zahrawi was permitted to stay in Germany, and he immediately lodged his migration documents.

In 2015, then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that there would be a one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees. 

Despite Canberra's intake, Zahrawi believes Germany stepped up when other Western countries, including Australia “closed its doors” on Syrian refugees.

More than 10,000 people who arrived in Germany as refugees since 2015 have mastered the German language sufficiently to enrol at a university.

Zahrawi found that a major obstacle was learning German.

While waiting for more than 10 months for his migration documents to be processed, he used phone apps to learn the language.

Seven years on, he realised his dream by studying Information Technology Engineering at Paderborn University in central Germany and considers Merkel “a leader like no other” for the decisions she made regarding refugees.

“She incorporated changes at so many levels. A smart, strong woman who opened doors to refugees. In 2015, any refugee was treated just like a German.

“Before that, it was hard to get admitted into universities. After the new laws, there were programs for refugees to pursue undergraduate and postgrad studies.

“I feel like my dream has finally come true.”

Sunday’s election will be the first time since 2005 that national elections will take place without Merkel, who served a record four terms in government.

Zahrawi misses his family in Syria but hopes to be reunited with them in Germany someday.

“I recall my childhood memories and feel bad about what happened to my home country. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to adapt to life in Syria.”

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