People charge their phones on the forecourt of a service station that has become a refugee camp at the Greek Macedonia border in March. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A team of six Syrian refugees are trying to solve one of the main obstacles the hundreds of thousand of refugees who flocked to Germany in the past two years must overcome: excessive bureaucracy. They're building an app for smartphones and computers designed to help recent arrivals to the German capital, Berlin, navigate the piles of paperwork required to receive social benefits, health care and a place to stay.

It's called “Bureaucrazy” and will provide translations of the most essential forms in Arabic and English, feature a map with Berlin locations every newcomer needs to know and answer a variety of other frequently asked questions that arise in dealing with the maze of offices and documents asylum seekers encounter.

The idea was born out of necessity, says 19-year-old Gaith Zamrik, who came to Germany at the end of last year. “When we arrived in Berlin, we all had two main problems, the language and the bureaucracy," Zamrik said. So he and his friends decided to do something about it.

Astonishingly, none of the six had any previous coding experience before arriving in Germany. They learned their skills at the ReDI School of Digital Integration, an NGO devoted to creating opportunities for young refugees by teaching them computer skills. In addition, the school provides them with the space and mentors to work on their own projects. “We're learning and building at the same time,” Zamrik explains.


Two refugees from Syria chat on their smartphones with their relatives in Syria as they wait in front of the Central Registration Office for Asylum Seekers last year in Berlin. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

For Zamrik and the other members of the Bureaucrazy team, such stories are a welcome change to the negative reports about refugees that have dominated the news. The recent violent terrorist attacks in the southern state of Bavaria, which were carried out by an Afghan and a Syrian asylum seeker, have made more Germans skeptical of chancellor Angela Merkel's initial open border policy. The country is also debating how to integrate the more than half-million refugees estimated to stay in the German society and labor market.

Zamrik and his friends are convinced that refugees are capable of great achievements. “Just think of the team of refugee athletes competing at the Olympics right now,” he said. But as asylum seekers, they have to overcome more hurdles than regular entrepreneurs. One major challenge for the Bureaucrazy project, for example, is raising funds for a nonprofit project if you're having trouble opening a bank account and the government will stop paying benefits as soon as your balance exceeds a few hundred euros.

To achieve their goal of making the app available by the beginning of next year‚ the Bureaucrazy team is about to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for new equipment and other expenses. Considering the amount of international media attention their project received in recent days, the campaign stands a fair chance of succeeding. One goal of showcasing the potential of refugees, however, has already been achieved.

“Refugees are doing a lot of great things. ... We are hoping that we can be their ambassadors,” said 30-year-old team member Omar Alshafai, who recently did an internship at Mercedes-Benz. "I asked to be placed in the electronics department, since I studied electrical engineering in Syria. They put me at the assembly line instead.”

Alshafai and his fellow Bureaucrazy team members say that refugees can help fill the gap of more than 170,000 professionals in the science and technology sector, according to a recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research.

“The people who make it to Germany are incredibly resourceful, both physically and mentally, because it's an extremely hard journey,” ReDI co-founder Anne Kjaer Riechert said.

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