Five years ago, Tareq Alaows crossed the Mediterranean in a flimsy rubber dinghy and trekked north through the Balkans toward Germany, fleeing the civil war in his homeland of Syria to seek a safe haven.
Since then, the 31-year-old has learned fluent German, found a steady job — and has just launched a campaign to run for a seat in Parliament in September.
“I am running for national parliament as the first refugee from Syria,” the soft-spoken Alaows told The Associated Press at a rally in support of asylum-seekers outside the Reichstag building in Berlin, where Parliament sits. “I want to give a voice to refugees and migrants in Germany and fight for a diverse and fair society for all.”
Alaows joined the Green Party last year and is running as their candidate in the Oberhausen-Dinslaken parliamentary constituency in western Germany.
With his beard and long black hair pulled into a bun, he has the informal look of a Greens politician, and also shares the party's focus on human rights and social justice.
In Syria, he participated in peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad's goverment while studying law at the University of Aleppo. He also volunteered for the Red Crescent relief group during the civil war and helped register internally displaced refugees.
In 2015, as the war in Syria became increasingly brutal and he was facing conscription into military service after graduation, Alaows decided to escape to “a place when I can live in safety and with dignity,” he said.
After his arrival in Dortmund in western Germany on Sept. 3, 2015, he soon became active again after being confronted with a system overwhelmed by the more than 1 million migrants who arrived that year.
After being crammed into a gym with 60 other people, “where nobody could sleep at night if just one child was crying," he helped organize protests against the conditions.
Alaows now works as a legal counselor for asylum-seekers at a nongovernmental organization in Berlin and splits his time between the capital and the city of Oberhausen, in his constituency.
“I really want to help improve the living conditions of refugees in Germany,” Alaows said. “It's not OK that they are lingering on the outer borders of the European Union in precarious conditions, drown in the Mediterranean and have to live in huge camps in Germany, all while European interior ministers are getting together to find ways how to keep them out or deport them.”
By the end of 2020, 818,460 Syrians were living in Germany. Most of them haven't yet applied for German citizenship. Alaows is one of the first to have fulfilled the prerequisites to apply for citizenship, which he is confident will be approved before election day on Sept. 26.
Overall, around 21.2 million of Germany's 83 million people have migrant roots, primarily from Turkey, as well as the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and Poland. Recent arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and other refugees who came much earlier, account for about 1.8 million of those.
But people of non-German backgrounds continue to be severely underrepresented in many sectors of society, including Parliament.
Of the 709 lawmakers who took office in the last federal election in 2017, only 58, or 8.2% had migrant roots, according to the Mediendienst Integration group that tracks migrant issues in Germany.
That is all the greater reason Alaows has found a home with the Greens, a party that lobbies for better integration of migrants in addition to environmental issues, and boasts that almost 15% of their lawmakers are from migrant backgrounds.
“Tareq is a candidate who advocates social justice and equality for all human beings as well as inclusive politics,” said Beate Stock-Schroer, a spokeswoman for the Greens in Alaows' district of Oberhausen-Dinslaken, as he launched his campaign last week.
Germany has a complex electoral system that gives its citizens two votes each — one for a directly elected constituency representative and another for a party list. Alaows faces an uphill struggle to win the first-past-the-post race to become a directly elected lawmaker — Germany’s traditional big parties win most of those — but could still enter Parliament if he gets a prominent spot on the party’s regional list.
That means he needs the party to vote to put him high enough on its list of delegates from the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where his constituency is located, when it decides on candidates for national Parliament in the spring.
His current campaign team is working hard to help him get there.
A handful of volunteers, mostly young and engaged like himself, field questions from the media, keep his social media accounts active and put out regular video and photos.
On Saturday, Alaows joined a protest in front of the Reichstag against the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers to their home countries.
Reggae music blared from loudspeakers across the snowy lawn as around 200 people held banners with slogans saying “Nobody is illegal" and speakers demanded open borders for refugees.
“I want to bring a political change to parliament,” said Alaows, gazing past the protesters at the Reichstag building, whose facade carries the slogan “To the German people” chiseled into the stone beneath its iconic glass dome.
“I want to bring the perspective of the people to Parliament who aren't represented there," he said.