German fever grips war-weary Syrians in Damascus

Sammy Ketz and Rim Haddad

Damascus (AFP) - When customers ask which of the backpacks displayed in Damascus's Souk al-Khija market is the sturdiest, shopkeeper Walid knows they are planning to take to the sea and try to reach Germany.

Lifting a bright yellow one from his storefront display, he patiently explains to a young couple that it is waterproof, comfortable for long walks, and can be removed easily in an emergency.

Whether it's in the crowded old souks of Syria's capital or the classrooms of its language academies, young Damascenes exhausted by four and a half years of war are increasingly consumed by the idea of reaching Germany.

The lucky ones will get visas, while others will embark on a perilous journey by land and sea to reach a country they see as their only hope for safety and stability.

"I sell 20 backpacks a day to customers of all ages, to whole families," said Walid. "There's no need to ask. They are refugee bags."

The rolling suitcases lined up along the sidewalk are not nearly as popular.

"I call them the visa-suitcases, for the people who have chosen a legal voyage, but I don't sell many, maybe two or three a day."

Abu Mohammed is another shopkeeper in Souk al-Khija, which specialises in travel items.

He says some 1,000 backpacks are sold every day, and that factories have had to increase production to meet the skyrocketing demand.

Thousands of Syrians have opted to trek through Europe on an illegal route to reach Germany, which has emerged as the top destination for those fleeing an intractable conflict that has killed nearly 250,000 people.

- 'German fever' grips capital -

Germany has said it expects 800,000 to one million asylum applications by the end of this year.

"In 2011 -- that is, before the crisis -- the embassy was issuing about 6,500 visas per year of all types. Today, this number has increased five-fold," a German official told AFP.

"German fever" has now gripped Damascus, where young professionals and students are scrambling to learn German -- a prerequisite for student visas.

Before the war erupted, the Goethe Institute cultural centre had offered language classes in Damascus.

But since it closed its doors, more than 25 German language schools have sprung up to serve at least 1,000 students.

Pupils pay $200 to $250 (179-223 euros) to reach the language level required to apply for a student visa.

At the Ibn Sina centre, the demand is so high that the administration has replaced all English courses with German, director Mohammad al-Omari tells AFP.

"For eight years, we did five German sessions per month, compared with 15 today. We increased the number of teachers from three to eight," he said.

Large maps of Germany hang on classroom walls, each city marked in large script.

Doctor Mumen Zarzur, a 26-year-old gastroenterologist, says he's studying German to pursue his specialisation in Berlin, where medical facilities are more advanced.

"To get a visa from the embassy in Beirut, I have to prove that I've taken courses and deposit 8,200 euros ($9,000)," he says.

- Damascus 'feels like exile' -

Emigrating to Germany also features prominently in Syrians' social media posts.

"Whoever invented the book 'Learn German in Five Days without a Professor' is a bloody liar," one Syrian Facebook user complained.

A picture circulated online depicts German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Syrians have affectionately nicknamed "Mama Merkel", with the caption "We love you".

And in a Facebook video, two Syrian refugees sing, "Germany, Germany, we're heading to Germany with the smugglers. If we can't get there through Turkey, we'll go through Spain, France, or Austria."

The situation is growing more desperate by the day.

Ahmad's visa application to Germany was denied last year, but after taking German classes, he is hoping he has reached the required language level.

"If I'm denied again, I'll go by sea. Instead of paying a deposit of 8,200 euros for the visa, I'll pay half of it to a smuggler."

"At sea, there's a risk of dying. But if I stay here, dying is certain," he says.

"All my friends are gone. Staying in Damascus feels like being in exile."