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German elections

Refugees in Berlin Reflect on the Far Right's Historic Election Victory

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.

Rebecca Baden

Rebecca Baden

All photos by Rebecca Baden

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

On election night in Germany this past Sunday, I joined a group of friends in Berlin's Neukölln district to watch the results come in on television. My fellow spectators were are all refugees, and for them and the rest of Germany, the question of the day was whether the far right, anti-refugee party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) would win its first ever seats in the German Bundestag, or parliament. It would represent the first real electoral breakthrough for any far-right party in the country since World War II.

Before the exit polls came in that night, 24-year-old Qussai, who fled Syria three years ago, still seemed pretty relaxed. "Of course I don't like the AfD," he explained. "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 nodded in agreement.

Joining us were Hossam, 25, Venous, 21, and brothers Oday, 26, and Alaa, 28. They hail from As-Suwayda in southwest Syria, and arrived in Germany between 2014 and 2016, where they were welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right government. All are either working or studying, and, apart from Alaa—who is a civil engineer—each has gained refugee status.

According to the AfD, however, my friends should not be allowed to live in Germany.

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

"As Syrians, we envy your democratic system," Alaa told me. "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 was announced, Qussai added, "I can't see them getting more than 12 percent."

At 6 PM, the early numbers seemed to confirm an historic day for the AfD, which was projected to snag 13.5 percent of the vote nationally. "Shit," Oday sighed, lighting a cigarette as the party's supporters celebrated on-screen. When he first arrived in Germany two years ago, Oday lived in the town of Bautzen, in the country's east. "In Bautzen, I saw how much racism there is in Germany," he recalled.

A few minutes later, we learned the AfD had become the largest party in Oday's old town, pulling 23.3 percent of the local vote.

Alaa (left) and Venous (right) discussing their concerns over the rise of the AfD

Over the past few years, members of the AfD have said Germany's borders should be protected with guns, compared the arrival of refugees to a broken water pipe, and lured voters with fears of "Überfremdung" (which roughly translates to "over-foreigning"). It's safe to say many Germans—and my Syrian refugee friends—will take some time to come to terms that kind of party doing so well nationwide.

"Merkel contributed a little to the success of the AfD," Alaa offered when the chancellor appeared on television 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." Qussai disagreed: "The refugee crisis was an emergency. How could she have planned for it?" (By this point in the evening, Qussai had demonstrated the most passion for German politics of anyone in the group, often leading discussions and sometimes even interrupting others when especially determined to make a point.)

My friends didn't all support the same party. One sympathized with the Greens, another with Merkel's CDU, while a third was split between the Social Democrat SPD party and the liberal FDP. They discussed 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 wore on there was a strange mixture of discomfort and resignation in the air—at one point, the refugees tried cracking jokes to pass the time and break the tension. We noted that FDP leader Christian Lindner looked ike a "typical German," and laughed at the SDP's Martin Schulz—it seemed obvious he was wearing TV makeup on his bald head. But try though they did, my friends couldn't mask their unease with the success of such a hostile force in their new home. "We're making a joke of it now," Alaa said, "but we're scared, too."

"Why do people vote for a party they know is racist?" Venous asked. "Because they think that the AfD offers them solutions," Alaa answered. "It's all about sharing a common enemy," Qussai added, rolling another cigarette. "If you ask me, the Nazis had the Jews, the AfD have refugees." We then heard a car driving by, tooting its horn in celebration. Even in Neukölln, one of the most multicultural areas of Germany, the AfD had won 10 percent of the vote.

Over the past few years, the AfD presented angry Germans with a very specific target for their rage: refugees, like the ones in that living room. Qussai, Venous, Hossam, Alaa, and Oday worried that with the AfD doing so well, they might now be more inviting targets for racist attacks. But their hope was that even if (more than) 12 percent of German voters ultimately supported a party that hates refugees, roughly 88 percent of their new countrymen might be willing to stand up for them.