German fever grips Syrians

DAMASCUS—When customers ask which of the backpacks displayed in Damascus’s Souk al-Khija market is the sturdiest, shopkeeper Walid knows they are planning to take to the sea and try to reach Germany.

Lifting a bright yellow one from his storefront display, he patiently explains to a young couple that it is waterproof, comfortable for long walks, and can be removed easily in an emergency.

Whether it’s in the crowded old souks of Syria’s capital or the classrooms of its language academies, young Damascenes exhausted by four and a half years of war are increasingly consumed by the idea of reaching Germany.

The lucky ones will get visas, while others will embark on a perilous journey by land and sea to reach a country they see as their only hope for safety and stability.

“I sell 20 backpacks a day to customers of all ages, to whole families,” said Walid. “There’s no need to ask. They are refugee bags.”

The rolling suitcases lined up along the sidewalk are not nearly as popular.

“I call them the visa-suitcases, for the people who have chosen a legal voyage, but I don’t sell many, maybe two or three a day.”

Abu Mohammed is another shopkeeper in Souk al-Khija, which specialises in travel items.

He says some 1,000 backpacks are sold every day, and that factories have had to increase production to meet the skyrocketing demand.

Thousands of Syrians have opted to trek through Europe on an illegal route to reach Germany, which has emerged as the top destination for those fleeing an intractable conflict that has killed nearly 250,000 people.

Germany has said it expects 800,000 to one million asylum applications by the end of this year.

“In 2011—that is, before the crisis—the embassy was issuing about 6,500 visas per year of all types. Today, this number has increased five-fold,” a German official told AFP.

“German fever” has now gripped Damascus, where young professionals and students are scrambling to learn German—a prerequisite for student visas.

Before the war erupted, the Goethe Institute cultural center had offered language classes in Damascus.

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