A Syrian Refugee Defies Odds and Becomes Mayor of a Traditional German Village
A 29-year-old man became a village mayor in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg after winning 55.41% of the vote.
Rayan Al-Shebl, 29, who fled Syria in 2015, is running as a non-partisan candidate for mayor of Austelsheim in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg.
In his private life, however, he is a member of the Green Party.
He describes his experiences on the campaign trail as “mostly positive”.
At the age of 21, Al-Shibl fled his hometown of Sweida in southern Syria. He has now been running the nearby Althengstett Town Hall for seven years. As mayor, he said, the cub now plans to move to Ostelsheim in the Kalow district.
Al-Shibl is probably the first Syrian mayor in southwestern Germany. According to the Federation of Municipalities of Baden-Württemberg, there is no other candidate of Syrian origin for the post of mayor yet.
In the elections, Cub defeated non-partisan candidates Marco Strauss and Matthias Fay.
Rayan Al-Shibl fled war-torn Syria in 2015, arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos after a harrowing four-hour journey on an inflatable boat.
“It was dark and cold and there was not a single light to be seen on Lesbos,” he recalls.
“A few hours ago we were in an ordinary city on the Mediterranean in Turkey. The environment changed with the cold and darkness, and of course the feelings of fear that accompany such a journey.”
The cub, who was barely 21 years old, was among a huge wave of refugees arriving in Europe that year.
After landing in Greece, he made his way through Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia by public transport and on foot, taking 12 days to reach Germany.
He ended up in a refugee center in Althengstett, a rural area near the Black Forest.
“In a condominium, where you can expect nothing more than a bed, a roof and some food, and for which I am still grateful, you can only do one thing: get ready to get back on your feet quickly and invest quickly in your future,” he said.
Cub soon learned to speak German fluently – “if you were in the countryside you had no other choice” – and obtained a training as an administrative assistant at Althengstett City Council.
He obtained German citizenship in 2022, which is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to run for local elections in Germany.
Now, 29, he will take over as mayor of Ostelsheim, a village near Althengstett, in June.
He is believed to be the first Syrian among the wave of refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015-2016 to be elected to a political office.
The cub is joined by four of his friends on his trip to Europe. But he left his parents and one brother behind, although the second brother had already moved to Germany on a student visa.
He said his experience fleeing Syria and having to “take responsibility not only for (myself) but also for the environment” gave him the impetus to get involved in politics.
“To have that responsibility at such an age, you learn a lot. Of course, that creates a new person, a new personality,” he said.
He is also a member of the Green Party, “because climate protection is very important” to him.
His victory was all the more impressive given that the village of Ausselsheim, with a population of 2,700, is a traditionally conservative community.
The village is set amidst a range of hills, surrounded by rolling fields lined with dry stone walls and hedges.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party exploited anger over an influx of asylum seekers in 2015-2016 to win votes and eventually enter parliament for the first time.
But Al-Shibl said he has not personally seen far-right extremism.
Al-Shibl believes he was elected because he listened to people’s concerns — from childcare to digitization issues.
He admits he didn’t really “feel anything” upon hearing he won the election in March because he was “so overwhelmed”.
But as congratulations poured in from around the world, it became clear that his story was “bigger than a mayoral election in a small community.”
Al-Shibl believes that his victory over other local candidates who grew up in the area says a lot about the mentality of the voters.
“It is a sign that people did not count origin but qualifications. It is a sign of openness to the world,” he said.
Al-Shibl’s parents, a teacher and agricultural engineer, belong to Syria’s Druze minority, but he describes himself as irreligious.
He has “mixed feelings” about Syria, which he has not been able to visit since living in Germany.
“It’s the country you were born and raised in… You yearn for the people you grew up with,” he said.
“But I’m glad I ever had this opportunity to live here,” he said, while others did not.