DRESDEN, Germany — Two years ago, Khaled Tabanja was on the refugee trail, in desperate flight from his native Syria before finding safety in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country's doors to Tabanja and more than a million others.
Today, the 26-year-old is on the campaign trail, arguing to anyone who will listen in this once-annihilated, now elegantly revived east German city that voters should choose Merkel's opponent in elections on Sunday.
Having left a country where participation in politics can get you arrested, tortured or killed, he is still coming to terms with his newfound freedom.
“You can’t even compare. Here there’s democracy,” said Tabanja — slim, hip, soft-spoken and still in the process of learning German. “Even if you can’t vote, you can say whatever you want. Even if you’re a refugee, you can be active in politics.”
But few are. In a campaign that has made refugees the subject of heated debate — much of it acidly negative — the approximately 1.4 million asylum seekers who have come to Germany since its last election four years ago are rarely heard from.
Lacking citizenship, ineligible to vote and still struggling to find their place in a new land after leaving countries where the tension between autocratic leaders and oppressed citizens devolved into war, many say they have no appetite for politics or don’t feel welcome.
Yet the question of whether the newcomers ultimately engage in German democracy could help determine whether they successfully integrate into society or remain consigned to the margins. Experts say that without an active political role, the wave of arrivals that swept Europe in late 2015 and early 2016 could be relegated to a long-term status as second-tier Germans.
That is true for previous generations of immigrants, who have long been underrepresented on the voting rolls, in party membership and among elected officials, said Tim Müller, a social scientist at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research.
Beginning in the 1960s, he said, Germany invited guest workers from Turkey and across southern Europe to fill a void in the labor market.
But thinking they would be here only temporarily, the state did little to make them feel they were part of German society. Decades later, Germany continues to struggle with how to integrate them — a pattern that officials insist cannot be repeated.
“We now have the chance to learn from the mistakes of the past,” said Dirk Hilbert, Dresden’s mayor.
This time, he said, policymakers have focused on ensuring that asylum seekers learn German, get jobs and avoid clustering in immigrant ghettos in particular cities, neighborhoods or buildings.
He also said they receive an education in the basics of German civics.
But in Müller’s view, it’s not strong enough, and little attention has been paid to drawing refugees into German democracy.
“The debate has focused on: ‘How can we make sure that many of them will leave when the crisis is over?’ ” he said. “It’s not, ‘How can we make them citizens?’ ”
The tone of this year’s election campaign has hardly been an enticement for the newcomers to get involved, with refugees discussed more as a threat or a burden than as an opportunity for an aging country that needs workers and youth.
While Merkel has defended her decision to allow the refugees to come, she has also said Germany will not be accepting large numbers of new arrivals again any time soon. She and her chief rival, Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate Martin Schulz, agree that the pace of deportations needs to be accelerated among those whose asylum claims have been denied.
The party in third place, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), says that even those with legitimate asylum claims should be sent back, in part because the predominantly Muslim newcomers do not fit into German culture.
“I don’t think that people from Islamic countries are willing to integrate themselves and contribute to society here,” said Anka Willms, an AfD candidate in Dresden.
The party frequently uses incendiary rhetoric to attack immigrants and their descendants; the party's deputy leader, Alexander Gauland, recently suggested that Aydan Ozoguz, the integration minister and one of the few nationally known politicians with an immigrant background, should be "disposed of" in Turkey.
In Tabanja’s new home town, Dresden, the political climate for refugees has been particularly hostile.
Every Monday for the past three years, the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant group Pegida has rallied in the city's center. The demonstrations once drew tens of thousands; they're now down to about 1,500, but they still reflect the depth of animosity among some in the city and the surrounding Saxon countryside.
Tabanja is aware of those sentiments. But he has also experienced a different side of Germany’s response to refugees, one that inspired his political activism.
Soon after Tabanja’s arrival in Germany after fleeing Syria, he and his partner were harassed for being gay by fellow asylum seekers at their shelter. Following pleas for help from authorities, they escaped via a red-haired German woman in her late 50s who took them into her rural home and told them they could stay.
It was a week before Tabanja learned that the woman was a prominent Social Democratic politician and the integration minister in the German state of Saxony.
“It was an emergency,” the minister, Petra Köpping, recalled of the decision she and her husband made to take in the two men. “There wasn’t much time.”
Tabanja, who was used to hiding his sexual orientation from his family and the public, was surprised when he carefully told Köpping that his friend was his boyfriend, and she told him she already knew and that it was okay.
“He couldn’t imagine that it’s normal for us. He kept asking, ‘Really?’ ”
The first few nights at their new home, Tabanja and his partner barely went outside, worried about how they would be seen and treated by neighbors. But when Köpping invited them to come to political events run by her party, Tabanja decided to join.
When not working as a waiter or taking German lessons, he now volunteers for the SPD, working in its offices, handing out fliers and talking to fellow refugees about why he chose the party.
For Tabanja, it comes down to two issues: the SPD is supportive of refugees, and it backs gay rights, including the same-sex marriage bill that passed the German Parliament this summer.
But he stresses that he is not against Merkel, who is still revered among some refugees for allowing them into Germany and whose Christian Democrats (CDU) are the overwhelming favorite to come out on top in the Sept. 24 vote.
At a recent meeting of gay refugees in Dresden, Tabanja — his dark hair neatly coifed and his jeans artfully torn — stood beside a rainbow-flag-draped table and made his case for the SPD. Refugees, he said, should get involved in politics, even if they cannot vote, because their future in the country is at stake.
He also sought to assuage anxieties about what it means to be an opposition party in Germany, a concept that has no parallel in despotically governed Syria.
"Sometimes the SPD agrees with the CDU, and sometimes they don't," he said. "They're just different."
After half an hour of Tabanja’s gentle persuasion, some said they remained skeptical of politicians and their promises. “We’re told we have all these rights here,” said Souha Triki, a 20-year-old Tunisian who has been unable to secure asylum protection. “But we don’t.”
Rabih, a burly Lebanese refugee who did not want his last name used because some of his family members do not know he is gay, said he was far more interested in “fun, music and enjoying life” in his adopted home than getting involved with the messy business of politics.
But having heard Tabanja’s pitch, he said he would heed it out of gratitude to the country that had given him a fresh start.
“Germany,” he said, “opened her arms for us.”