SAARLOUIS, Germany – Der, die, das: Little words that are the ticket to a new life.
Mohammed al-Haj, a Syrian migrant whose journey across Eastern Europe to Germany last summer was documented by The Associated Press, has finished his first German language course and is getting ready for his second one. The feat, together with his recently granted three-year German residency permit, sets the 27-year-old up for a new life in his adopted home.
A native of Aleppo, Syria's one-time economic capital that now lies in ruins, al-Haj came to the western German state of Saarland in September to benefit from its swift processing of migrants. He has since shown a healthy zeal to adapt.
In November, he accepted an offer by local authorities to take voluntary German classes. He begins mandatory German language classes in April, seeking a proficiency that will allow him to study in Germany.
"Honestly, it was worth the risk," he said of his perilous, two-week journey from Turkey to Greece and across the Balkans to Germany. "The conditions in Germany are very good, at least here in my state. It was worth the risk to build a future here."
Al-Haj has lived in a private home with three other Syrian asylum-seekers since October. His rent is paid by the local government and he receives a monthly stipend of 330 euros ($368) for food and other expenses.
"I manage, but I cannot go to many places because transport is costly," he said.
Al-Haj says he can get his point across in halting German, but he hopes eventually to be good enough to enroll at a German university to study media and business administration.
"Without knowing the German language, they (migrants) have no chance in Germany," said Franca Cipriano, director of the Tertia German language school in Saarlouis where al-Haj took his classes. "If they want to work, they have to know the language. If they want to get citizenship in Germany and have a German passport, they have to pass a test about civic education and a language test. So without knowing the language, it is impossible."
Al-Haj was about to start a degree in Arabic literature at Aleppo when the war broke out in 2011, and he had to shelve his dream to work to support his family.
His decision to join the over 1 million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others making the often-perilous, smuggler-filled journey to western Europe last year came after his student visa application to study in Germany was turned down. At the time, he told The AP he had no choice. Returning to Syria was not an option — he was convinced the war would only get worse.
He still doesn't see any hope of going back in the near future.
"I don't know what may become of Syria," he said. "I don't expect to visit home in the next three years."