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Welcome to Germany: Syrian's hit YouTube guide to life in Berlin

Firas Alshater is a role model of successful integration and uses humour to defuse tensions between Germans and refugees
Firas Alshater is an increasingly popular YouTube star in Germany (Photo credit Juuso Santala)

BERLIN, Germany – The hipster beard, smiling face and energetic humour of Firas Alshater - a refugee from Damascus living in Berlin - has been a familiar sight on German mainstream media in the past month or so.

The 24-year-old Alshater is the co-creator and star of Zukar – Firas Discovers Germans – a series of short humorous videos showing Germany from the perspective of a Syrian refugee. The first episode of Zukar, published on Youtube on 27 January, went viral almost immediately and was viewed by 2.5 million people in Germany and worldwide. Since then, Alshater has been featured in reports by popular German television, magazines and newspapers – all highlighting his near-fluent German and positive approach.

Alshater is one of about half a million Syrians currently living in Germany, including 428,468 who arrived last year. In the first two months of 2016, German authorities registered an additional 60,661 asylum applications by Syrians, and thousands of others are on the way. The Germans are hosting more Syrians than any other European nation by far.

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Just last summer, German society was praised and celebrated for its Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) towards refugees. But more recently, as the number of asylum applications continues to rise with no end in sight, attitudes towards refugees and migrants have been less supportive.

The government recently approved new restrictions to the asylum laws. Germany’s far-right party AfD won many votes in recent local elections, and the Pegida movement – Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of Europe – is once again on the rise. During the last year, there were 733 attacks by far-right ultra-nationalists against refugee hostels, a four-fold increase in such incidents compared to 2014.

Into this difficult new environment, Alshater launched Zukar, and it was an instant hit. “It is not important if you are with refugees or you are against refugees,” Alshater tells MEE about his hit YouTube show. “You will laugh because you will find it funny.”

MEE met Germany’s funnyman and refugee poster-boy – who knows the German language, has a job, and is creating culture – in southeast Berlin, in his office at Filmbit, the studio producing Zukar. Alshater first came to Germany in 2013 to edit a movie he had shot for Filmbit in Syria. After completing the project – a film called Syria Inside – Alshater realised returning to Syria was too dangerous, so he applied for asylum in Germany. Within a few months he was granted refugee status and was issued a three-year residence permit, in accordance with German law. In the past three years, Germany has granted refugee status to over 200,000 people.

The language obstacle

Like all other people with refugee status, Alshater was entitled to a free language course. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees emphasises on its website the message: "If you live in Germany, you should try to learn German as quickly as possible." Alshater, who wants to return to Syria but is not optimistic about that happening anytime soon, has embraced the challenge of learning a new language.

“I want to learn German because I want to stay here, I want to study here, I want to work here,” Alshater said. “I have many German friends, a lot of contact with Germans, and that's helped me a lot.”

Germany’s Federal Education Ministry allocated 180mn euros to literacy-promoting projects, including free German language courses for refugees. In addition, the German government funded the creation of an app that provides a free multimedia language course. “We invest in people to enable them to act for themselves,” Franziska Giffey, Mayor of Neukolln - a district of Berlin where 10 percent of the population is of Arab decent - told me at a recent job fair for refugees.

Franziska Giffey (centre) is Mayor of Neukolln, a district of Berlin where 10 percent of the population is of Arab decent, at a recent job fair for refugees (MEE/Yermi Brenner)

“When somebody learns the language he will integrate into society and he or she will give his effort to be a part of this country,” Mayor Giffey added, “and that is important for social peace.”

Germany’s Labour Minister, Andrea Nahles, went as far as to suggest that refugees who are not making an effort to learn German should not be getting welfare benefits.

Alshater said his main motivation for learning the language was to be able to deal with all the German bureaucracy without constantly relying on other people for help in translations.

He thinks one of the main reasons for Zukar’s popularity is that German media were happy for the opportunity to put the spotlight on a refugee who has learned the language, and who is integrating and contributing to society.

Traumatised masses

Overcoming the language obstacle has made life in Germany a bit easier for Alshater, but like many other refugees, his past experiences and his family’s present reality is always on his mind. He worries about siblings and relatives who are still in Syria, and he often has trouble sleeping as his mind dwells on thoughts of traumas - past and present. In his first few months in Germany, when he was living near Berlin’s airport, every plane landing or lifting off evoked frightful memories of bombing and destruction.

More than half of those who escape war zones suffer from mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related conditions, according to Germany’s Chamber of Psychotherapists. However, in Germany, the health insurance package for refugees does not cover psychological care, except in emergency situations. In Berlin, where over 60,000 refugees currently live, the only free professional psychological treatment available for refugees is provided by two non-governmental organisations – Xenion and Berlin Centre for Torture Victims (BZFO).

Alshater is being treated by BZFO, and he said it has helped him a lot. BZFO treat all traumatised refugees - regardless of whether or not they have been tortured. Alshater did not want to go into specific details about his own war experiences in Syria but did explain how the relentless fear of being on the ground while bombs are going off was hard to endure and how traveling throughout the country not knowing who might cause him trouble was a constant worry.

The treatment offered by the BZFO has been gratefully received by him. “The most helpful thing for me was to find somebody to talk to,” he explained. “You come to a country, you don't know anybody, you don't know the language and you are feeling alone. So you need somebody to talk to, and this is the one hour where I had a big chance to talk with somebody to tell them what I did, what I do, what happened and everything.”

But Alshater is an exception. BZFO is forced to reject about 90 per cent of the refugees who approach it for help, according to Dr Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, a psychologist and BZFO’s outpatient clinic head. Clearly frustrated, Dr Wenk-Ansohn told me rejecting refugees is the worst part of her job. She said the centre – which is funded partly by public money and mostly based on donations – is underfinanced and does not have the resources or manpower to respond to the demand for mental healthcare that has risen since the influx of refugees intensified.

“Amongst the people coming here in the past two years, especially those from Syria, there are so many traumatised people, so many who have experienced torture," said Dr Wenk-Ansohn. “We have more than 10 times more requests for places for treatment than we can offer.”

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has urged countries to provide adequate support for refugees who have mental health issues. The two European Union laws regulating the support that must be made available to asylum seekers and refugees – Asylum Procedures Directive and Reception Conditions Directive – stipulate that EU member states must screen asylum applicants to check who might be in need of mental care. The European Commission is now pursuing infringement proceedings against Germany and five other member states for failure to comply with the directives.

Zukar backlash

Making the show has provided an outlet for Alshater's feelings about the situation he and many Syrians find themselves in, and is also a way of bringing people together. “I think [Zukar] would be good to build some more trust between the refugees and Germans,” he told me. The name Zukar - sugar was chosen for the show because it means “something sweet” in three languages – Arabic, German and English, he said.

But not everybody thinks Zukar is sweet and funny. Alshater said some Arab people contacted him online saying, "You don't look Arab, why you have this f**** piercing, why you have this tattoo, why you look like that, you are not Arab, you are not from us." And there were some Germans who expressed their discontent in the comments section of the Zukar Youtube channel.

However, overall, the responses to Alshater have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive – from both Germans and Arabs. The first episode of Zukar has so far generated 8,003 likes and 500 dislikes, and the channel has over 15,000 subscribers. Alshater said some Arab friends had recently contacted him to let him know how proud they felt after watching Zukar.

“It is making a difference,” Alshater added. “It is like some hope.”

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