SCHILLINGSFUERST, Germany (Reuters) - More than a year ago, Mayar and Nawar Ballish escaped car bomb attacks in Damascus. Now the Syrian sisters, both students in their twenties, go to school by train past neat gardens and farms in the quiet hills of Bavaria, southern Germany.
They have lived there since October 2015. Their story shows what a cultural leap such migrants face, and how hard it can be to match the aspirations of those seeking shelter with Germany’s own goals.
Around half a million Syrians have arrived in Germany over the past two years, part of a record influx of more than a million people. Most new asylum applicants have been men, a few of them violent or, according to the security services, covert jihadists.
Some Germans feel it is a duty to welcome asylum-seekers. But violence by a few has fueled hostility. There are attacks on asylum-seekers’ homes more than twice a day on average, according to the Interior Ministry.
The sisters, who have leave to stay for three years, are more westernized than some of their compatriots. They wear jeans and choose not to wear the veil. Last Eid, they spent days making and delivering homemade cards to everyone in their town as a gesture of friendship.
Even so, says Mayar, “most people ... don’t really get the fear and the situation that we left behind in Syria.”
The government stresses that Germany needs to import labor. A study published in 2016 by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research said that without migration, the German working-age population would probably fall by around 500,000 a year between now and 2035.
The country needs skilled workers in technical jobs such as automotive and metal engineering, plumbing and software development as well as health and nursing.
The problem is: That’s a mould the sisters don’t fit. Like around one in five recent Syrian arrivals in Germany, they are educated to a high level. They hope to go to university, but people in the school system have pressured them to follow a vocational course.
“The worst part is that ... people ... think we’re dumb, useless refugees who aren’t going to do anything,” Mayar, 21, said.
Back in Syria, the sisters were at Damascus University. Mayar was studying English literature. Nawar ranked in the top five in her interior design course. Their mother went to university with them and studied French literature. Their father, who is 53 and is called Moneer, worked for the government as a technical design teacher.
In 2012, Moneer was passing a courthouse in Damascus as a car bomb exploded. He removed 27 pieces of shrapnel – mostly bits of windscreen – from his face and chest. The next year, another car bomb ruined the family’s fourth-floor apartment.
The sisters left Damascus with their mother and brothers in August 2015. Their father followed; they were reunited last Christmas.
The government housed the family in Schillingsfuerst, a quiet place with around 40 refugees and an average age of 41. The Ballishes are the only Syrians in the town, which has a population of 2,275. It sits on Germany’s Romantic Road, a holiday route which one promotional website says “unites culture with wellness, recreational activities and the idyll of nature.”
Mayor Michael Trzybinski says he would like some refugees to stay permanently: “There are people among them who do great work and people who really want to completely integrate.”
Last March Horst Doellinger, who owns the family’s apartment, arranged for Moneer to do an internship at his architects’ office. He enlisted one of his staff to help with bureaucracy. He hopes he might be able to employ Moneer in future. But first, he said, “these people need to find their feet.”
The Ballishes’ apartment overlooks a grassy field and modern yellow, pink and blue houses. The family gets 1,024 euros ($1,080) from the state each month and a German woman gave them things including furniture, a laptop and guitars.
Local volunteer Gerald Baer first met the family at a Christmas party in 2015 where he was dressed as Santa Claus. They are learning German fast, he said. “They’re also very open and cheerful and reach out to other people, and I think that’s a big advantage.”
Soon after arriving, Moneer and his wife went to exercise classes with older people. But she had a bad back and stopped going. When he realized he would be the only man, he stopped too. He set up a Facebook page to try to boost understanding between Syrians and Germans.
The sisters started German lessons at a technical school in November 2015 and play volleyball at a local club.
In some ways they have found Germany shockingly free.
On the way to school, they noticed a girl who seemed to be forever changing her hair color - green, purple, pink, and blue. They were surprised to see women wearing short shorts, or with their midriffs exposed.
“People here don’t have limits, don’t have rules for clothes and you can wear whatever you want and dye your hair,” said 22-year-old Nawar. “That makes us think about whether it is good or not.”
In one class, a teacher showed them a photo of Conchita Wurst, a drag queen who won a Eurovision Song Contest. “He was wearing a dress but he had a beard too,” said Mayar. Her dark eyes widened.
Nawar had mastered masculine, feminine and neuter in German. “He’s not a woman and he’s not a guy,” she said. “He’s ‘das,’ not ‘der’ or ‘die!’”
Other Syrians have responded dramatically to such permissiveness, but Mayar thinks she will get used to living with freedoms like homosexuality.
“At first when I heard of it I thought: ‘Huh? This is crazy, this is really stupid, no one in the world would do it,’” she said. “But then I think ‘OK, they are a little bit weird’ ... Maybe a year later I will say, ‘yeah that’s OK, nice!’”
Hans Emmert, a retired teacher in Schillingsfuerst, said he understands the sisters’ response. He admires their moral steadfastness and believes many other Germans do too.
“I think that might even provide positive impetus,” he said. The family’s moral code contains values “that we have unfortunately lost.”
Not everyone has been understanding. When the sisters were giving out Eid cards, Mayar greeted a woman watering plants. The woman frowned and turned her back, telling Mayar to go away and saying she did not want to talk to her.
A few people worry that refugees are getting attention that native Germans need. Rita Tanevski, the girls’ volleyball teacher, said she knows one unemployed man who said, “‘The refugees get all the help, they have time to help them find a job but I get nothing.’”
The Ballishes’ top priority is education. They know people in Sweden, their father says, but came to Germany in the hope it would be better for the children’s studies. Mayar wants to teach English or American studies at university level.
However, Germany generally puts heavy emphasis on vocational training. In 2015, only around 30 percent of 30 to 34 year-olds in the country had any kind of university degree, according to Eurostat. That is one of the smallest shares in Europe: In Sweden, it is 50 percent.
There is no data on how many refugees study at German universities, but the German Academic Exchange Service estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 of the refugees who arrived in 2015 came with qualifications to enter university.
Germany’s Education Ministry has pledged 100 million euros to 2019 to help refugees prepare. Medicine, business, mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology are in high demand, a spokeswoman said.
The girls’ technical school teachers told them they should spend two years learning German and then three years learning a skill or a vocation. The school took them to a jobs fair in Nuremberg and they saw people sewing, cooking, fixing cars or building roads. None of it appealed.
“I have a headache now whenever I hear the words ‘Beruf’ (profession) or ‘Ausbildung’ (vocational training scheme),” said Mayar in June. “I want to go to university.”
Germany, like other European countries, has always focused on what role refugees could play in the labor market, said Jochen Oltmer, a professor specializing in historical migration at Osnabrueck University. He thinks the government and universities need to do more to help those who want to study.
Last September the sisters finally found German classes at a nearby university. They started to feel they were on the right track.
“We lost a lot in Syria,” said Moneer. “We lost Syria, but we don’t want to lose their future.”
For a graphic on asylum-seekers' education levels, click here
Edited by Sara Ledwith