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How Syrian Refugees Are Helping One Another Adjust to Life in a Strange Land

A new website started by a Syrian refugee living in Germany aims to explain everything from how to navigate the country's bureaucracy to how to order at a restaurant.

Ahmad Denno, who is creating Eedbeed, an online resource for refugees. Photo by Meredith Hoffman

When Ahmad Denno arrived in Berlin seeking asylum, he felt unhinged. The young Syrian spoke no German, had no friends in the country, and slept with 200 other men in a repurposed basketball court. Many of his fellow refugees weren't much better off.

"Most people spent the whole day inside. They said they didn't know where to go," Denno told me recently at a cafe in Berlin. He's a svelte 25-year-old with a buzz cut and a gentle demeanor. "They only speak Arabic. They'd like to do something, but they don't know how."

Eager to help, Denno started giving out his phone number at the camps, telling people to call him when they needed something. Within three months, he's given it to at least 100 refugees.

"I was getting 15 or 20 calls a day, and it became too hard to handle them all," recalled Denno, who used his English fluency to find information when he first got to Germany. "I was thinking of what I could do, because we have more than 100,000 Arabic speakers in Berlin, most who speak only Arabic."

The dilemma led Denno to create Eedbeed, a website in Arabic with all the information a refugee might need in Berlin, like how to get a work permit, how to get medical care, and even how to ride the subway. Eedbeed—meaning "hand-in-hand" in Arabic—will launch later this year, with the help of Denno's 25-person team of refugees. To complete the site, Denno is meeting with several top German businessmen this month who are interested in investing.

"The biggest border for people here is the language. My idea with this is to get people to go out, to be active," Denno said. "It makes them integrate more easily now, because it takes from one to two-and-a-half years of studying to learn the language."

Eedbeed is part of a larger trend of information resources made by refugees, for refugees. In the past few months, newcomers like Denno have responded to the vast need for such services by creating a refugee newspaper, an app explaining how to access the German government's services, and a refugee radio station, to name a few.

But Denno insists that his site, unlike the others, will serve as a one-stop shop for all these needs. Eedbeed is an ambitious tool: It will include guides to German culture and law, an online newspaper, an events calendar, and a YouTube channel.

"Eedbeed will explain how to apply for permission to study the language and how to apply for a work permit," said Denno, who worked as a marketer in Aleppo before fleeing Syria. "When I got to Berlin, I learned alone with Google and a GPS. I called nonprofits and the government for help, but it was hard—and I spoke English. Most people can't do that."

"I want this site to kill the hopelessness of waiting for asylum." —Ahmad Denno

Eedbeed will also help demystify German norms—both the serious and lighter ones.

"For instance, in Syria, if a woman takes a man to court her family will shame her, but here that doesn't happen. Women are more free," he told me. "And it will explain how to do 'cheers' with people. I was at a bar after a few months being here, and we did cheers, but then someone came up to me and told me if I didn't look people in the eye during cheers I got six years of bad luck." (Actually, Germans typically say you have six years of bad sex.)

Zain Hazzouri, who is working on Eedbeed, made this video on how to use the Berlin metro for new refugees

"I want this site to kill the hopelessness of waiting for asylum," said Denno, who arrived in Germany December 2014 but still hasn't gotten his asylum status because of the large backlog of applications. "In shelters, people are hopeless. They think they should wait for their documents from the German government, and then they can start to study, but they don't have to wait to do things."

Preparing the new arrivals to become informed citizens, the site will include local news written in Arabic—both stories translated from German sites and firsthand reported articles, since Denno already has journalists on his team, who were recruited from a large network of Syrian friends in Berlin.

Denno's friend Rami Morad, a Damascus native, will lead Eedbeed's news coverage. He told me he's already spent months posting articles on his Facebook page about Berlin.

"I'd spend every day, sometimes 20 hours, translating articles from German to Arabic," said Morad, who also had acquaintances around the city who would send him news tips they saw on the street. "I've been here two years, and I know every centimeter of Berlin."

A group of asylum seekers in Berlin. The massive backlog of asylum applications has left many refugees waiting for months before they can start their new lives in Germany. Photo by Mark Seibert/Die Linke

To encourage refugees to explore the city, an events calendar will feature at least five activities daily, such as German-language sessions, sports matches, and dancing. Eedbeed will also a YouTube channel and content posted to Facebook. Denno's friend Zain Hazzouri is even creating a "Refugee Reality Show," in which a refugee will go to bars, restaurants, and events with a camera clipped to his or her collar to demonstrate basic norms here, like how to order a meal and how to pay a bill.

"All refugees start off staying in camps, and it's like another world for them here. They're embarrassed even to order water—do they pay first or get the water first?" Hazzouri, a lanky 20-year-old, told me. "And when they enter a restaurant what do they do, sit down or wait? The videos will offer simple ideas of how to act in the city."

Hazzouri, a self-taught videographer who studied mathematics in Syria, is also preparing straightforward how-to segments for more complicated tasks, like going to the doctor. He got the idea after making a how-to video about using the Berlin subway to help his German friend with a university class assignment.

"He was supposed to make a project that helped refugees, or migrants from everywhere, but they had us make it in English," said Hazzouri, who plans to remake the video in Arabic.

Hazzouri made the English project last year, two months after arriving in Germany, at a time when he was working any odd jobs he could—from cleaning to helping people move. He was desperate for money, since the German government had not yet provided him its promised benefits for asylum seekers.

"It was hard for me, because for my first six months here, I got no money from the government since they lost my file," he said. But he maintained that it was "hardest for people from the villages" to adapt to Berlin, since the city environment was so foreign to them.

Hazzouri and Denno hope Eedbeed can offer practical tools—and can bridge more abstract cultural barriers.

"I would like to start to make the Arabic readers know about how we can have a many different minds," Denno said, "but we should live together."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.