Syrian refugee elected mayor of German town, years after fleeing war

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CNN
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A Syrian who arrived in Germany as a refugee in 2015 has won a mayoral election in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Ryyan Alshebl, who left his hometown of As Suwayda in Syria eight years ago, ran as an independent in the municipality of Ostelsheim. He won 55.41% of the votes on Sunday, beating two German candidates, Marco Strauss and Mathias Fey.

Locals cheered the 29-year-old when he welcomed his win, a victory he described as “sensational,” German local broadcaster SWR reported Monday.

“Today, Ostelsheim sent an example for broad-mindedness and cosmopolitanism for the whole of Germany,” he said, according to to German public broadcaster ZDF. “That’s not something that can be taken for granted in a conservative, rural area.”

Alshebl’s first call after his victory was to his mother in Syria, who was thrilled with the news, SWR reported.

The Association of Municipalities of Baden-Württemberg said Alshebl is the first man with Syrian roots to run for and win a mayor’s office. He will start his role in June.

Ostelsheim residents have welcomed their incoming mayor. “The fairy tale has come true, and the right man has become our mayor,” Annette Keck, who lives in the village, told SWR.

Strauss, one of his opponents, congratulated Alshebl. “I wish you good luck and at the same time ask for support for Mr. Alshebl, for our shared Ostelsheim,” he said on Facebook.

The state’s Integration Minister Manne Lucha said that Alshebl’s victory showed that diversity is a natural part of Baden-Württemberg. “I would be very pleased if Ryyan Alshebl’s election encourages more people with a migration history to run for political office,” he said.

Not everyone has been so warm to the 29-year-old. ZDF reported the Syrian received hateful comments on the campaign trail.

The young politician went from house to house, promoting his election program, and “the experiences were predominantly positive,” but there was also a minority of far-right fringe voters in Ostelsheim that did not want to accept him due to his Syrian roots, Alshebl told ZDF.

Born to a schoolteacher and agricultural engineer in Syria, Alshebl described his life as carefree until the age of 20, according to his campaign website.

At the time, protests against the Syrian government that began in 2011 soon devolved into chaotic war. The fighting and later rise of ISIS forced 10.6 million people from home by late 2015 – about half of Syria’s pre-war population.

Alshebl faced the dilemma of being drafted for military service with the Syrian army or leaving the country, according to his website.

While many Syrians were displaced internally or fled to countries in the region, others like Alshebl made the dangerous journey to Europe. He was 21 years old at the time, and said he crossed from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in a rubber dinghy.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel had implemented a brief open-door policy in 2015 that saw the country take in about 1.2 million asylum seekers in the following years, including Alshebl.

The move sparked a backlash in Germany and the sudden growth of the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the wake of summer 2015.

Once in Germany, Alshebl lived close to Ostelsheim and said at the time he felt “there is only one thing you can do: get back on your feet quickly and start investing in your own future quickly.”

For the last seven years he worked in the administration of Althengstett town hall, in a neighboring town. He drew from his experience, he said in his campaign, and made digital access to to public administration services one of priorities. Flexible childcare and climate protections are also on his agenda.

Alshebl, who is a member of the Green Party and now has German citizenship, pledged during his campaign that once elected as mayor he would move to Ostelsheim.

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