Five years ago, as more and more refugees crossed into Europe, Germany’s chancellor proclaimed, ‘We’ll manage this.’ Critics said it was her great mistake – but she has been proved right
Mohammad Hallak found the key to unlock the mysteries of his new homeland when he realised you could switch the subtitles on your Netflix account to German. The 21-year-old Syrian from Aleppo jotted down words he didn’t know, increased his vocabulary and quickly became fluent. Last year, he passed his end of high school exams with a grade of 1.5, the top mark in his year group.
Five years to the month after arriving in Germany as an unaccompanied minor, Hallak is now in his third term studying computer science at the Westphalian University of Applied Sciences and harbours an aspiration to become an IT entrepreneur. “Germany was always my goal”, he says, in the mumbled sing-song of the Ruhr valley dialect. “I’ve always had a funny feeling that I belong here.”
Hallak, an exceptionally motivated student with high social aptitude, is not representative of all the 1.7 million people who applied for asylum in Germany between 2015 and 2019, making it the country with the second highest population of refugees in the world. Some of those with whom he trekked through Turkey and across the Mediterranean, he says, haven’t picked up more than a few words and “just chill”.
But Hallak is not a complete outlier either. More than 10,000 people who arrived in Germany as refugees since 2015 have mastered the language sufficiently to enrol at a German university. More than half of those who came are in work and pay taxes. Among refugee children and teenagers, more than 80% say they have a strong sense of belonging to their German schools and feel liked by their peers.
Success stories like Hallak’s partially redeem the optimism expressed by Angela Merkel in a sentence she spoke five years ago this week, at the peak of one of the most tumultuous years in recent European history – a sentence that nearly cost her her job and that she herself has partially retreated from.
“I put it simply, Germany is a strong country,” the German chancellor told the media at a press conference in central Berlin on 31 August 2015, trying to address concerns about the steeply rising number of people – mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – applying for asylum in Germany that summer.
“The motive with which we approach these matters must be: we have already managed so much, we’ll manage this.” During the German TV broadcast of her interview, headlines flashed up to report that Hungary was sending trainloads of people to the German border, 20,000 of whom turned up at Munich central station the following week alone.