Originally published in Al-Jazeera
Mohammad, a 28-year-old Syrian software engineer, had recently been accepted into a language institute in Brunswick, about 235km east of Berlin - but after weeks of failing to get a visa appointment at the German embassy in Beirut, he started to look for an alternative.
Following a friend's advice, Mohammad, who spoke to Al Jazeera using a pseudonym, found himself inside a shady office space in Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood. Here, a gray-haired Lebanese man told him: "I can get you an appointment at the embassy anytime you want."
Four years after the start of Syria's civil war, millions have fled their country. Around 1.5 million now live in Lebanon, of which an estimated 300,000 are without refugee status. Many work skilled jobs without contracts - a prospect that has led Syrians like Mohammad to look for a way out.
In the past two years, Germany has pledged to accept more Syrian refugees than the rest of Europe combined. Germany's policy has made it one of the preferred destinations for Syrians, many of whom are looking for student or reunion visas to join family already there.
The German embassy in Beirut has accepted Syrian visa applications since the closing of the Damascus branch in February of 2012. But unlike other embassies here, applying online is the only way to make an appointment.
When Mohammad went online each week, he found that all the appointments were already taken. Other Syrians shared similar experiences. In April of 2014, rumours spread that the German embassy's application system had been hacked - allegations they were forced to deny.
Frustrated and with time running out before the semester was to start, Mohammad heard through a friend about an alternative: surreptitious firms that book appointments at the embassy for student or reunion visas.
Several of these firms operate out of Beirut. A quick online search turns up a handful of Facebook pages that offer appointments at embassies in Beirut or Amman. Some provide email addresses or phone numbers in Turkey, Lebanon or Syria, while others encourage Syrians to message them directly via Facebook.
Al Jazeera's inquiries with these companies, and interviews with Syrians who have dealt with them, revealed that an appointment can cost between $22 and $113, depending on the requested waiting period and the firm involved. This cost includes the necessary visa paperwork.
In exchange for this fee, these black market operations take a Syrian's passport information and adds him or her to a waiting list. When appointments open, the companies have individuals waiting by a computer to book as many appointment slots as possible using the names and passport details of people on the waiting list.
The companies, meanwhile, seem to be doing what they can to keep a low profile. Many of the Facebook pages offer scarce, if any, contact information.
"What those individuals and companies are doing is shameful," said Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid, a Beirut-based non-profit that assists Syrians in need.
"The German embassy and other embassies should be sensitive to these situations and have special arrangements for applicants from Syria either through phone, or by having staff help them fill the online applications," Mhaissen told Al Jazeera. "We are now studying the possibility of having special days [to help them book appointments] for free."
Past cases show how difficult it is to get an appointment. After receiving a job offer at an architecture firm in Germany, Abdallah, who also spoke under a pseudonym, tried for weeks to get a visa appointment. A friend tipped him off about the black market appointment sellers, but he wanted to do things the right way.
"I emailed the embassy twice," Abdallah said. "But they said there was nothing they could do about it and the only way to book an appointment was online."
Abdallah called a number passed on by a friend, and wired 100 euros ($113) to a Syrian man in Beirut. He was given an appointment two weeks later and eventually received his visa.
Meanwhile, back at the store in Hamra, the Lebanese man had said he was licensed by the embassy to sell visa appointments for 50 euros each ($56), Mohammad noted. "He was a liar," Mohammad said, noting the man was actually signing up for appointments online in an unofficial capacity.
In online posts, Syrians have labelled such operations as "offices of theft".
An embassy employee who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity acknowledged her employer's awareness of such operations. But "there's nothing the embassy can do about it," she added. "They're a mafia."
Joerg Walendy, head of the German embassy's legal and consular section, told Al Jazeera in an email: "Appointments cannot be 'sold'. They are given automatically to any applicant who enters her or his data into the online system… [W]e would have a problem with service providers who present themselves as official partners of the embassy or part of our official structure. Such cases of possible wrongdoing are reported by the embassy to the ISF [Internal Security Forces]."
Abdallah said he believes these companies are taking advantage of less fortunate Syrians who may not be computer-savvy. Getting an appointment on one's own would only happen "by chance", Mohammad added.
"Not all people have internet in Syria," he said, pointing to the war-torn country's difficult reality. "Right now, we don't even have electricity."