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German elections

I Spent Election Night With Refugees, Watching the Far-Right Win Big

Germany voted far-right nationalists into parliament for the first time since World War II. We spent election night with some of the Syrian refugees they hate.
All photos by Rebecca Baden

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

It's election night in Germany, and I've joined a group of friends in Berlin's Neukölln district to watch the results come in on TV. The friends are all refugees, and for them and the rest of Germany, the question of the day is whether the far right, anti-refugee party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) will win their first ever seats in the German Bundestag parliament. It wouldn't just be the first seats for this particular party, but also the first for any far-right party since World War II. Before the exit poll comes in, 24-year-old Qussai, who fled Syria three years ago, still seems pretty relaxed. "Of course I don't like the AfD," he says. "But if 12 percent of the German voters back them, it's only right they're represented in parliament. That's how democracy works." Everyone in the apartment nods in agreement.


Joining Qussai is Hossam, 25, Venous, 21, and brothers Oday, 26, and Alaa, 28. They're from As-Suwayda in southwest Syria, and arrived in Germany between 2014 and 2016 – welcomed by Merkel's government. They're all either working or studying, and, apart from Alaa – who is a civil engineer – they've all gained refugee status. According to the AfD, however, people like them should not have been allowed to live in Germany.

Oday (right) watches as the first few results are confirmed.

"As Syrians, we envy your democratic system," Alaa says. "The AfD has a lot of support right now, we'll see whether they're able to maintain that over the next four years." Twenty minutes before the exit poll is announced, Qussai adds, "I can't see them getting more than 12 percent."

At 6PM, the exit poll seems to confirm the AfD's success, with 13.5 percent of the vote. "Shit," Oday sighs. He lights a cigarette as the party's supporters celebrate on TV. When he first arrived in Germany two years ago, Oday lived in the town of Bautzen, in eastern Germany. "In Bautzen, I saw how much racism there is in Germany," he remarks. A few minutes later, the AfD is confirmed as the largest party in the town, at 23.3 percent.

Alaa (left) and Venous (right) discuss their worry over the rise of the AfD.

Over the last few years, members of the AfD have said that Germany's borders should be protected by firearms, compared the arrival of refugees to a broken water pipe, and lured voters with fears of "Überfremdung" (which roughly translates to "over-foreigning"). It'll take many Germans and these Syrians a few days to come to terms with the fact that such a party has done so well across the country.


"Merkel contributed a little to the success of the AfD," says Alaa, when the German chancellor appears on screen to defend the worst result in 70 years for her party – the conservative Christian Democratic Union. "If she'd had a plan for taking in refugees, she probably wouldn't have lost so many votes to right-wing populists." But Qussai disagrees with Alaa: "The refugee crisis was an emergency. How could she have planned for it?" So far this evening, Qussai shows the most passion for German politics – he often leads discussions and interrupts others when he wants to make a point.

The friends don't all support the same party. One agrees most with the Greens, another with Merkel's CDU, while a third is split between the social democrat SPD party and the liberal FDP. Tonight, they discuss Merkel's refugee policies, the global economy, and the role of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Russia in the ongoing Syrian crisis.

Qussai (left) says he will decide whether to go back to Syria when the civil war ends.

As the evening wears on, there's a strange mixture of discomfort and resignation in the air – the group try to make some jokes to pass the time and break the tension. They note FDP leader Christian Lindner looks like a "typical German", and laugh at SDP's Martin Schulz, because it's clear that he's wearing TV makeup on his bald head. They try, but they can't mask their unease with the success of the AfD very well. "We're making a joke of it now," says Alaa, "but we're scared, too."

"Why do people vote for a party they know is racist?" asks Venous. "Because they think that the AfD offers them solutions," Alaa answers. "It's all about sharing a common enemy," Qussai adds, rolling another cigarette. "If you ask me, the Nazis had the Jews, the AfD have refugees." A car drives by, tooting its horn in celebration. Even in Neukölln, one of the most multicultural areas of Germany, the AfD have won ten percent of the vote.

Over the past few years, the AfD presented angry Germans with a very specific group to hold responsible for their problems – refugees, like the ones in this living room. Qussai, Venous, Hossam, Alaa and Oday worry that with the AfD winning, they could now be easier targets for racist attacks. But their hope is that if 12 percent of the German voters support a party that hates refugees, 88 percent of Germans might be willing to stand up for them.