Berlin and Hamburg, Germany – “Why are you here? Go back to your own country,” a man on the street once yelled at Hussam Al Zaher and his sister Samer, who was donning a hijab.
The two Syrian siblings had been exploring Hussam’s new hometown, Hamburg.
Since moving to Germany in October 2015, rebuilding his life from zero has been an uphill battle.
“I think it’s fear of the unknown,” says 29-year-old Al Zaher, referring to the racism he suffers. “Most people who resent refugees don’t really know us.”
While Germany has been the most welcoming European country in accepting large numbers of refugees, recent developments have caused some concern for asylum seekers and rights groups.
In the September federal election, Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term, but her victory was overshadowed as the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), gained 12.6 percent of the vote. The AfD is the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag in post-war Germany.
“I hear a lot about the rise of right-wing extremism in Germany, and it’s making me feel uncertain about my future here,” says Al Zaher.
The journalist fled from Damascus in October 2014.
After a year of toiling for 15 hours a day at a clothing factory in Istanbul, he embarked on the perilous journey that tens of thousands of Syrians made before him.
After crossing the Aegean Sea in an overcrowded boat to Greece, he travelled on the Balkan Route.
He is now one of 1.3 million asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since 2015.
“The beginning was really tough,” he recalls. “I felt lonely; I didn’t speak German and very little English.”
While he has made German friends and met welcoming and understanding locals, Al Zaher, who is Muslim, has also faced a backlash.
One day, he received hate mail from a stranger saying: “Go back to Syria. This is our country. You are ruining our country with your culture.”
But the young Syrian steadfastly believes that communication can break down barriers, so he launched the digital magazine “Fluchtling”, German for refugee.
“I want them to see that we are human beings, just like them,” he said. “Being open-minded towards other people and cultures can be difficult, but we can achieve acceptance through respect and discussion.”
The German population is polarised over the newcomers, and support for Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, called “welcome culture”, has dropped.
The far-right AfD party’s rise reflected disgruntlement and showed that even Europe’s largest economy, where the unemployment rate is at a record low of 5.6 percent, is not immune to populism.
“I believe that most AfD voters aren’t right-wing extremists, they are just afraid,” Al Zaher said. “They’re afraid of Muslims, a different culture, a different way of thinking.”
From January to August this year, 123,878 asylum seekers arrived in Germany, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Of those, almost a quarter came from Syria, followed by Iraqis and Afghans. In 2016, 280,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany, while in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, 890,000 people crossed the border.
Most AfD voters aren't right-wing extremists; they are just afraid. They're afraid of Muslims, a different culture, a different way of thinking.
Integrating those hundreds of thousands of new residents is a daunting task.
“It won’t happen overnight,” Afghan refugee Sahar Reza told Al Jazeera. “It takes time – often years – to understand the German job market, the culture and to learn the language.”
She arrived in Germany in November 2014.
She completed an integration course, where she learned German, and has registered with the job centre to find employment.
“I hope I’ll find a job to build an independent life here,” she said.
Soon, Reza will start an internship at the Green Party in Hamburg, before she moves on to a placement at the local government.
She followed the election closely and was surprised by the outcome.
She said: “I understand that some Germans are frustrated and feel alienated. They work and pay taxes … Paying for others for such a long time can be irritating.”
Providing asylum seekers with food, housing, and German language courses is costly.
Last year, the federal government spent 21.7bn euros ($25.5bn) on dealing with the refugee crisis, according to the finance ministry. For this year, the government has earmarked 21.3bn euros.
Several projects have now joined the effort to help refugees settle in and feel at home.
“Multaka” trains Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers to become museum guides in Berlin; at “Uber den Tellerrand”, refugees teach cooking classes; “Sharehaus Refugio” is a communal housing initiative; Refugees Welcome helps them find a spare room in flat shares and Start with a Friend connects volunteers with refugees to help them navigate aspects of life in Germany and build friendships.
The Berlin-based initiative Cucula also wants to empower refugees.
“We want to help them gain a skill set and ready them for the job market,” said Corinna Sy, a cofounder.
At the Cucula workshop in the hip Kreuzberg district, refugees learn how to build furniture and trainees take part in educational programmes.
“In 2015, authorities and communities were completely overwhelmed by the influx,” Sy said. “Since then, we’ve made progress. But there are a lot of hurdles for refugees to find work and integrate. Many of them remain isolated and aren’t part of our society yet. There’s still a long way to go.”