Tareq Alaows’ candidacy for the Bundestag was meant to be historic.
He was hoping to be the first Syrian refugee elected to Germany’s parliament. Instead, a torrent of racist abuse and threats forced him to end his campaign after less than two months.
His experience has led to demands for stronger protections for minority candidates while helping to expose the depth of racism and anti-refugee sentiment among some Germans.
Alaows, who studied law in Syria, has been dealing with racist attacks since he started political organising among fellow refugees shortly after his arrival to Germany six years ago.
“I expected this prior to the campaign, but I’ve never experienced anything at this level,” he told Euronews.
“When I announced my candidacy, any social media account or e-mail address associated with me, even work accounts, was immediately inundated with threats and abuse.”
According to Alaows, the online attacks reflect the highly-organised nature of Germany’s far-right.
Messages came in coordinated waves multiple times a day, in such overwhelming quantities that the campaign had staff dedicated solely to documenting and deleting racist comments.
Though it’s often hard to know how seriously to take online threats, an incident on the Berlin subway made it clear that these couldn’t simply be chalked up to trolling.
“I was accosted and threatened by someone on the U-Bahn. I didn’t know if he’d physically attack me, or just keep screaming at me until I got off at the nearest exit. It was the longest minute and a half of my life.”
Alaows wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of the vitriol. His campaign staff and family were also threatened, which ultimately pushed him to make the difficult decision to stop the campaign.
“It reached a point where I couldn’t guarantee my own safety. Or the safety of those around me. And that is a massive responsibility,” said Alaows.
Legacy of ‘welcome culture’ put to test
In 2015, Germany made international headlines for its refugee-friendly ‘welcome culture’. More than 1.2 million refugees applied for asylum in Germany in 2015 and 2016 alone.
Six years on and the venomous response to Alaows’ candidacy from some corners of German society signifies that the country might not be as welcoming as it once styled itself.
The German government has reported a rise in far-right extremists, while nine people were murdered in the country’s largest racially motivated attack in postwar Germany in last year’s terror attack in Hanau.
32-year-old Alaows was one of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled to Germany in 2015. He hasn’t forgotten the support and advocacy he received after arriving from a grueling, months-long journey via the Balkan Route.
“Welcome culture was the reality. And I still see this societal welcome culture today,” he said, going on to mention the many cities in Germany that have committed their willingness to take more refugees than required by German and EU policy.
For Alaows, the biggest challenge facing refugees in Germany isn’t a local one. “The problem is at the national level. Federal legislation makes it harder (to accept refugees), or completely blocks it.”
During his time in the country, Germany has only tightened its asylum laws. Politicians, including in the center-right CDU and center-left SPD, are currently discussing further tightening refugee policy and deporting asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Syria that commit crimes in Germany.
This is part of what Alaows sees as a broader pattern of structural racism that is particularly harsh to refugees.
“It’s often forgotten that integration is a two-way street,” he said. “There is a responsibility to make it as easy as possible for people to truly arrive and integrate into society. Laws need to be made to encourage that. Which tends not to be the case. Refugees arrive here and live in shelters without prospects, without a clear route to asylum, and having to fear being deported at any time.”
Alaows argues such structural discrimination is linked to a glaring gap between the makeup of German society and its parliament. Roughly a quarter of the German population are immigrants or the children of immigrants, but only 8% of the Bundestag have immigrant roots.
“Democracy should be different. Parliament should reflect society. We have lots of people who have experienced fleeing but lack a voice in our government,” he said.
Political work of a different kind
His candidacy as a member of the Green Party in September’s federal election was meant to help rectify this. And though having to abandon his bid to become the country’s first refugee in parliament due to racist backlash is a gut-check for German society and democracy, Alaows is not giving up on politics.
“I don’t see an alternative. As someone who can help build bridges between refugees and politics, I have a responsibility to keep going. I won’t stop. My political work will continue, just on a different level than I planned,” he reflected.
After ending his campaign, Alaows has returned to the advocacy work he’s been doing in various capacities since arriving in Germany.
He provides legal guidance and support for those seeking residency or asylum, in addition to human rights activism with Seebrücke, an organisation he helped found in 2018 which advocates for safe havens for refugees and against the criminalisation of refugee rescue.
Though it would be hard to blame Alaows for being bitter about or burnt out by the abuse he and his campaign received, he remains positive about his work.
“I’ve done this work for years. First in Syria (with the Syrian Red Crescent) and then in Germany. Even with the candidacy in between, my work started at the civil society level. And I am just glad to be active again, it’s doing me good,” he said.
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