Berlin, Germany – Squeezed onto a small rubber dinghy with 12 other people, Mahmoud Kazazz held on tight to brace against the waves in the Aegean Sea and prayed.
It was his third attempt to cross from Turkey to Greece by boat. On the previous two tries, the rickety vessel capsized shortly after taking off near Izmir.
Soaked through, shivering in his wet clothes, and exhausted, Kazazz refused to give up. As the motorboat rattled across the water, he had one destination in mind – Germany.
“I had a life in Syria, I had friends and family and school. I didn’t want to leave,” Kazazz, 27, from Damascus, told Al Jazeera.
As the civil war in Syria worsened, he embarked on a perilous, dangerous and costly journey to reach safety and a better future in Europe.
Kazazz is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have come to Germany in recent months – from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
As civil wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have sparked a mass exodus – what has now become the largest refugee crisis since World War II – Germany has opened its doors and borders to all those searching for refuge and a safe haven.
Last weekend alone, 20,000 refugees arrived in Munich. Europe’s strongest economy is now expecting to take in about 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of this year: more refugees than the entire European Union took in last year – 626,000.
“The world sees Germany as a country of hope and chances,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference last week.
“It became an everyday struggle for survival,” Kazazz said of the deteriorating situation in Syria after the civil war broke out in the spring of 2011.
At first he wanted to go to the UK, but after he heard of thousands of refugees living in tents in Calais in France and how difficult it seemed to get to Britain, he opted for Germany instead.
He heard from friends that the country opened its borders to Syrian refugees. “I think I have better chances there to build a future. It’s a strong economy and education is free. But most of all it’s safe and respects human rights,” Kazazz said.
Other EU states, meanwhile, have refused to take part in allocation schemes, or like Hungary and Bulgaria, put up fences around their borders to keep refugees out.
“We are grateful that both German politicians and the public have a ‘we can do it’ attitude,” Stefan Teloken, spokesman for UNHCR Germany, said.
A vocal part of the German public supports Merkel’s open-door policy.
Hundreds of people cheered, sang and clapped as refugees arrived at the main train stations in Munich and Frankfurt in recent days.
Locals welcomed them holding up posters that said “Refugees Welcome” and brought food, clothes, blueberry cake, balloons, toys and even baby food and diapers for the youngest of new arrivals.
In Munich, Germans donated so much that the police had to ask them to stop because they were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of aid items.
The football club Bayern Munich announced it is building a training camp for refugees, where it will offer German lessons to kids and youth, as well as football clothes and meals. At the next game against FC Augsburg on Saturday, each player will walk into the stadium holding the hands of one German child and one refugee child.
Despite all the positive energy, however, some observers are questioning how the tens of thousands of newcomers, many of whom are conservative Muslims, will integrate and adapt to German society.
Currently, there are four million Muslims living in Germany, mainly Turkish migrants.
“Now, hundreds of thousands of Arabic Muslims are arriving, which makes a difference in terms of integration,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere cautioned in an interview with Die Zeit.
“We will have to prepare for changes everywhere: school, police, housing, courts and the health system,” de Maiziere said.
However, the German government seems confident that a more diverse demography will bring new vitality into the ageing society.
“A large part of the 800,000 asylum seekers arriving in Germany this year will most likely stay long term,” Teloken said. “Germany is now preparing for this to achieve a successful integration into German society by providing language classes, education and by creating job opportunities for them.”
Currently, one refugee incurs a cost of about 13,000 euros ($14,500) per year – including the cost of food, healthcare, pocket money and housing, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
If 800,000 refugees arrive in Germany, the cost will be up to 10 billion euros ($11bn) this year. At a coalition meeting between the main parties on Sunday, the government agreed to set aside 6 billion euros ($6.7bn) in 2016.
Furthermore, German industry leaders have come forward and said they would provide refugees with job opportunities. The Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche for example announced he would start recruiting young and eager people in refugee centres.
|Thousands of refugees reach Germany|
But, not everyone in Germany is on board with the new refugee policy.
Horst Seehofer, chairman of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, has spoken out.
“We cannot take in all refugees alone with 28-member states in the European Union. No society can endure this in the long run,” Seehofer said.
The worry for some politicians is that Germany will not be able to bear the financial and logistical demands in the end.
The influx poses several challenges for local authorities. Some are concerned about housing shortages as the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East continue to drive refugees north. At the current rate, German authorities must build 300,000 new flats to provide housing to hundreds of thousand of new arrivals, according to the German Association of Cities.
Furthermore, local authorities are struggling to provide proper security as the arrival of so many foreigners has fuelled xenophobic opposition and some violence against them from right-wing groups.
Almost weekly, refugee camps and homes set to house new arrivals are targeted by arson attacks. Neo-Nazis and right-wing groups, especially in the east, have also protested against what they call an “Islamisation of the West”.
Kazazz has a network of Syrian friends in Hamburg now – all refugees from the civil war. He wants to learn German quickly to be able to find a job.
But he said it will take him and fellow refugees a long time to adapt to the new country and different culture.
“It was tough when I first got here because it’s tough to get a job without speaking the language properly and I wasn’t sure whether I’d fit in,” Kazazz said.
He insisted, however, he is grateful to be in Germany “because I found peace and safety”.
But: “Home is – and will always be – Syria.”