Islamic Lifestyle 

Fighting for their rights Arab, Muslim refugees turn political activists in Germany

| 09 February, 2018 | General
 Ali Bahnasawy
Fighting for their rights Arab, Muslim refugees turn political activists in Germany
Protestors gather at the 'Day of Rage' protest in Germany in December, 2017, holding signs opposing U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Photo: Ali Bahnasawy

A new generation of Arab and Muslim political activists in the making is learning to deal with a German society whose language they can barely speak.

On a cold and grey morning in December, thousands of Muslims flooded the streets in Germany in a coordinated action. Carrying the Palestinian flag and holding signs written in German, they were opposing U.S. president Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In the protest they called the ‘Day of Rage’, young Arab men and women expressed their opinions loudly and freely in a new country they now call home.

Quietly, five young people wearing badges that set them apart from the others, were making sure their fellow protestors stayed peaceful and not break any laws. These are the organizers of the protest at the forefront of a generation of Arab and Muslim immigrants in Germany who are beginning to understand that their voices matter.

Millions of immigrants and refugees poured into Europe in the past few years, and their rise is expected to add a new element to the ongoing debate about the mass influx of migrants. They are now a force in the making that is willing to demand their rights as they see them.

Until now the debate has been about them, but not with them.

Photo: Hiba Cherif at the 'Day of Rage' protest in Germany in December, 2017. Salaam Gateway/Ali Bahnasawy


21-year-old Hiba Cherif was one of the organizers of the Day of Rage. But the December protest was not her first.

Cherif arrived in Germany from Syria in the summer of 2015. “My first protest in Germany was two months after my arrival,” she told Salaam Gateway.  

When she arrived in Germany, she was placed in a refugee camp in the city of Esslingen, around 10 miles south of Stuttgart. After two months of waiting, no progress was made on her application as a refugee. She describes the sixty days as the longest in her life, spent doing nothing but worrying, eating and sleeping. In a moment of despair, she left the shelter with tens of other refugees, blocking the streets of the small medieval city, and shocking the locals. The protestors called for their right to know their status in Germany.

“Many Germans assaulted us verbally because we didn’t have a permit, but we didn’t respond to them,” said Cherif. “The next day our picture was on the front page of the newspaper.”  

Alerted by the media coverage and complaints against the spontaneous protest, the police rushed to the shelter to calm the refugees and promised a speedy process for their application. In a week, the local authorities held hearing sessions for Cherif’s case. She was granted refugee status. Cherif believes the protest helped to speed up her application process.

Some two years and four months later when President Trump announced his intention to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Cherif turned to Facebook, where hundreds of closed groups were created by refugees to support one other. She started to express her frustration with what she saw as muted official responses coming from Arab and Muslim governments, and she was not alone.

Hundreds if not thousands shared her feeling, and quickly the question became: what can we do?


The discussions on Facebook started to shape into a common goal and participants agreed to protest across Germany. Arabs and Muslims would take to the streets carrying only the Palestinian flag and unified banners written in German.

“We wanted to tell him [Trump], that you don’t decide for us. We are not nothing,” said Cherif.

Cherif and other protest organizers held meetings in the local library to agree on chants and where the protests will be held in each city. They insisted on writing the flyers in German to reach the local population. They bought flags from a wholesaler in Berlin, printed signs and hung them in mosques across the city to invite worshippers to join them.

However, one thing was missing: a protest permit.

Another organizer, Nour Alwaki, rushed to the city hall to ask about the process of issuing a permit for the protest. There were only 48 hours left to the scheduled protest and the organizers were in a grim mood. To his surprise, Alwaki learned that the law in Germany only requires protestors to inform the authorities but not to wait for their approval. Officers at the city hall asked him about expected numbers of protestors, what chants would be used, what their banners read and if they will use a microphone.

“They were clearly surprised to know that we don’t belong to a party or an organization. But they said we can proceed with our demonstration,” said Alwaki, who arrived in Germany from Syria in July 2014.

German law doesn’t require protest and demonstration organizers to wait for approval, according to a statement from the Berlin Department of Interior and Sport. “Demonstrations must be registered but not approved,” said the statement.

A notification of the demonstration can be handed to the authorities in writing, sent by fax or filled online. Last year Berlin saw 4,897 registered demonstrations, down from 5,003 in 2016. And while records show the number of organized demonstrations and protests, they don’t say how many of those were carried out by refugees. “Statistics about applicants and topics is not kept,” a statement from Berlin police reads. “Therefore a statement about the number of demonstrations with refugee reference is not possible.”

Photo: Nour Alwaki at the 'Day of Rage' protest in December in Germany. Salaam Gateway/Ali Bahnasawy


Refugees in Germany suffer from three problems: many of them stay up to three years in shelters where living conditions are challenging, their applications for refugee status takes years to process, and the charged political climate against them delay their reunion with families who still live in their home countries.

Currently, the overall time it takes for asylum procedures is 10.7 months, according to a statement obtained from the Federal Bureau for Refugees and Immigration (BAMF). This number is disputed by the refugees who say that in many cases they have to appeal in front of the courts if they were denied the rights of asylum. If the appeal is accepted the process is prolonged. At the time of this publication, there is a backlog of 68,200 asylum cases still under investigation by BAMF Federal Office, including 22,400 (32 percent) old cases.

The number of refugees who applied for asylum in the past three years since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened German borders to them is 1,444,877, according to BAMF. Many refugees who arrived requested their families to join them but the actual number of family reunion requests is not clear at the moment.

The results of the September Bundestag parliamentary elections didn’t help solve refugee issues. Fear of refugees was the main reason the far right anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6 percent of votes, which translates into 94 of 709 seats in parliament, for the first time since World War II. It is also the reason why a coalition deal between parties to form a new government took four months to reach between Merkel’s conservatives (CDU/CSU) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The deal is still pending SPD members’ approval.

On the matter of family reunification, the coalition has agreed on a cap of 1,000 people per month who will be allowed to join their families who are now living as refugees in Germany. 

Photo: Syrian refugees take photos as they attend an election campaign rally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) for the upcoming general elections, in Wolgast, Germany, September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch


Will a new generation of politically active refugees help the causes they’re fighting for or spread more hate against them and other immigrants? 

“It will be like adding fuel to the fire,” said Jens Dierolf, a political journalist based in Heilbronn, around 40 miles north of Esslingen, about the prospect of refugees holding unified demonstrations to demand solving their issues.

“Many of course will tolerate it, because they see the high value of articulating their interests. But a strong number of people will not tolerate the protests,” said Dierolf. A political scientist, Dierolf has been reporting and writing opinion columns for the past six years about migration and refugees. He describes the reaction he always hears to his writing about challenges facing the refugees:

“People say: ‘They don’t have the right to complain. They are here. They are safe. What more do they want?’ ”

Prof. Dr. Andreas Blatte, managing director of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen, which sits between Dusseldorf and Dortmund in the west of Germany, told Salaam Gateway he personally believes that refugees protesting for their rights is a “good development”, and that “protesting is a perfectly valid tool”.

“Signing letters to the members of parliament, petitions, maintaining the alliance with the NGOs that support them, and even the more dramatic hunger strike, are all political tools,” said Blatte.

 “Now the debate about them finally has their voice, which was absent,” Blatte added.

However, he also believes the protests will create a divide. “German left-wing activists who observe and participate with the refugees in their protests are saying ‘Finally! The refugees finally spoke for themselves and are not being passive.’ However, the right wing will exploit the protests politically and use it to point fingers to the refugees,” said Blatte.

This is clear to many political activists like Cherif and Alwaki. “We are focusing now on starting a dialogue between us and the political parties and NGOs,” Alwaki said. It is a difficult process, especially that refugees don’t have the right to vote.

Alwaki doesn’t rule out a unified call for protests to pressure the authorities to speed up the application process for refugee status and solve the issue of family reunifications. “We discussed the protests option, but I believe it should be the last resort.”

Last month, refugees marched to the German parliament building to submit a petition signed by 30,000 individuals, both German citizens and refugees, demanding the reunification of refugees with their family members abroad. The campaign organized by the human rights and refugee protection NGO Pro Asyl wanted to show a different side to the immigration debate and another side of the political spectrum that could involve refugees as activists .

Photo: A protester holds a placard that reads "Dear Trump, what have you imagined ?" during a demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in Frankfurt, Germany, December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski


During a demonstration against Trump’s Jerusalem embassy decision some protestors in Berlin burned the Israeli flag in front of news photographers’ lenses. The action, broadcasted on television and covered by newspapers, sparked an outrage against the demonstrators.

German Interior minister Thomas de Maizière described the action as “disgraceful”. Overall the blanket of criticism covered not only those who burned the flag, but others, too. “I believe [burning the flag] hurt the refugees’ image,” said Dierolf. “It is important to see that Israel and the Israel flag deserves strong protection due to our history. Nobody can accept burning the flag.”

Dierolf also points to how the far right party AfD used this single incident to attack the refugees, and prove to their supporters, again, that the refugees don’t belong in German society. It was a clear blow to the peaceful protestors in many other German cities.

Alwaki said he and many other organizers were aware of anti-Semitism sensitivity in Germany; they made sure not to burn any flags, and avoided hate chants during their demonstrations. “We are against Zionism and the occupation of our land. Our cause is both humane and just. We expect the German society to understand our motives.”

He also stressed the point that many refugees don’t know the laws in Germany. They arrived to the country less than three years ago, and face a steep learning curve.

Alwaki believes the mandatory integration course is a good starting point to spread awareness among newcomers. “It is the role of the state to spread the awareness of what is forbidden and what’s not,” he said.

“Only then will the fear that we grew in our home countries vanish and we will fully understand that we can express ourselves here without the fear of retaliation.”

(Rpeorting by Ali Bahnasawy; editing by Emmy Abdul Alim, and Reem Wafai)

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