Tech by VICE

Young Syrian Refugees Developed an App to Cut Through German Bureaucracy

After a rough road from Syria to Germany, Mohammed Khattab wants to make it easier for refugees to find a safe home.

by Farid Farid
Aug 16 2016, 1:00pm

Mohammad Khattab. Image: Mohammad Khattab

Mohammad Khattab remembers trembling as he approached the army checkpoint leaving his Syrian hometown of Latakia in January 2015. The 24-year-old economics university student was escaping to Lebanon as the brutal civil war dragged on. He said he clutched his paperwork tightly, knowing he would need everything to be in order to build a new future.

Khattab had been summoned to serve in Bashar Al Assad's Syrian national army in December 2014 and needed to dodge the call. This was the same army that had taken over major parts of the port city, killing and maiming friends in his own social circle.

"They would have killed me or I would have died. I needed to get out," he told Motherboard from Berlin, where he ended up as an asylum seeker along with his younger brother Munzer in March 2015 after a treacherous route by sea and land.

Landing in Germany had its own obstacles. These days he's dealing with administrative matters in Germany, a task far removed from the fear of reckoning with an autocratic regime. But the many requirements needed for settlement for new arrivals, whether refugees or migrants, can still be daunting.

A common experience for new arrivals is to register at the Ausländerbehörde (Immigration & Naturalization Service). There they have to wait for over 10 hours sometimes in a queue because of the sheer numbers to present their paperwork for asylum. And it can take months, sometimes years, for them to be granted residence and work permits.

Khattab with his brother and four of his friends saw this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. They are currently developing an app called Bureaucrazy aimed at simplifying the maze of filling out paperwork that can feel Kafkaesque, even for German citizens.

Screenshot from the Bureaucrazy app. Image: Mohammad Khattab.

The app captures the frustrations of cutting through red tape, and is designed to help users fill out forms in Arabic and English, which will then be translated into German. The young men behind the app had no background in programming before settling in Berlin, and have been studying at the REDI School of Digital Integration.

"The new and daring idea came out of the conditions that we were experiencing. We had no German language skills when we first arrived, we didn't know exactly what to do in terms of filling out forms and finally most of the time we are waiting," he added, speaking to me in Arabic. Khattab also speaks fluent English.

Germany had an influx of asylum seekers last year accepting over 1.1 million new arrivals from war torn countries, including Syria. This has put a strain on the system when registering for accommodation, attending language courses or applying for employment at designated job centres.

Khattab, along with his team, are still in the early stages of app development and have been inundated with the positive response to their idea from the public. They have a meeting scheduled later this month with the German authorities to work with them directly in integrating the necessary forms. They are hoping to launch by January 2017 and have been crowdsourcing to finance their idea. Meanwhile, Khattab is still waiting to be approved for residency in Germany, almost a year and a half after his arrival, and has decided to switch majors to information technology.

The team (Mohammad Khattab, Munzer Khattab, Ghaith Zamrik, Omar El Shafei, Ghaith Salamlo, Ahmed El Arshee) with mentors from REDI. Image: Mohammad Khattab

With Germany tightening immigration controls and several recent terrorist incidents implicating Syrians, Khattab is keen to highlight the ingenuity of the growing Syrian diaspora who are involved in technological endeavours. "We want to work and contribute here. This app will make people's lives easier settling in."

And even though Latakia continues to be a geopolitical pivot point in the Syrian conflict, with intensified Russian involvement, Khattab hopes to return there someday and share his programming skills at home.

"It's our beautiful homeland in the end."