In 2015, the number of asylum applicants from the conflict-free region surpassed those from Syria and Afghanistan.
Berlin, Germany – An asylum seeker from Pakistan took the stage and appealed for solidarity in the face of growing anti-refugee sentiment at a protest in the Marzhan-Hellersdorf borough in the eastern part of the German capital.
“We have seen the worst that humanity can offer: the air strikes, the drone strikes, the wars,” he told the crowd, as an activist translated his words to German every few minutes.
A large banner fluttered against the windows of an old, communist-era apartment building across the street: “Together against Nazis and racists – here and everywhere.”
Hundreds rallied here in a local square on March 19, protesting against violence against refugee centres across the country, as well as voicing their discontent with the landmark gains recently made by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party that made campaigning against refugees and migrants a central part of their platform in regional elections.
In 2015, an estimated 159 attacks or incidents of vandalism targeted refugee centres across Germany, according to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organisation that tracks racially motivated violence.
So far in 2016, the group has recorded at least 63 attacks on refugees or refugee centres, 53 of which were arson attacks.
‘Nazis accosting people’
In a nearby refugee shelter operated by the People’s Solidarity organisation, 22-year-old Loay Alhamedi explained that he fled his hometown of Raqqa owing to violence at the hands of the Syrian government and death threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Alhamedi, who also works with refugees at the shelter, made his way through the halls, greeting Syrian and Afghan families in Arabic and English respectively.
He explained that he never imagined escaping the bloodletting in his country to encounter threats and violence in Germany. Alhamedi added that German camp employees have also been threatened by hardline anti-refugee activists in the area.
“I see that it’s not possible for me to go on living in this area,” he told Al Jazeera. “I have seen a lot of situations here with my own eyes, like the Nazis accosting people [refugees].”
While waiting for the train one day, Alhamedi was confronted by a young man and woman who verbally assaulted him. “That morning I heard my uncle was killed by the YPG, so I was already crying,” he said, referring to the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish armed group in Syria.
“They came to me threatening me, yelling in my face,” he recalled. “They told me I came here to steal their money. I started yelling, I was crying. I told him, ‘I didn’t come here for money… I spent 6,000 euros ($6,830) to get here.'”
Alhamedi has noticed that right-wing demonstrations in the neighbourhood have increased in recent months.
“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care. They are free to express their opinions. But it has happened more than once that incidents like 12 or so young men gather usually late at night… they hit [foreigners] with lead pipes.”
Alhamedi wishes he could speak to these attackers who target refugees. “I don’t know if it’s possible … but I wish I could make them understand… why Syrians are coming.”
He said that Syrians are not fleeing their homeland by choice, but that they have to flee in order to survive. “What’s the difference between a Syrian and a German anyway? In the end, we are both humans.”
Back at the protest, a swath of flags from different progressive parties and movements beat against the cloudy afternoon sky. The Association of Anti-Fascists and Victims of the Nazi Regime, the Left Party, the Greens, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Pirate Party.
Demonstrators held up placards in the crowd: “Berlin against Nazis”, one read; “Nazis out!” another proclaimed.
After addressing the crowd, Petra Pau, Vice President of the German Federal Parliament and senior member of the Left Party, came down from the stage.
“The success of the AfD is not just about right now – it is the effect of a long process in German society,” she told Al Jazeera, arguing that Germans need to unite “365 days a year to fight racism”.
Pau warned that the failure to prosecute those who attack refugee shelters will create an environment of impunity and lead to more violence.
Raiko Hannemann, one of the demonstration organisers, echoed Pau. “It is also very important that [the protest] is happening here in this district because it has a very bad reputation,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Because in [recent] years there were a few incidents, attacks… For us, it’s very important to show that not only Nazis are living here.”
Although the AfD has publicly condemned attacks on centres for asylum seekers, critics argue that its rhetoric has fostered the anti-refugee sentiment that has gradually but steadily risen throughout the last year.
The AfD gained 24.2 percent of the votes in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, placing it closely behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party by a mere 6 percent. The party also landed in third place in both the Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate states, securing 15.1 percent and 12.6 percent respectively.
Originally founded in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party, the AfD took the lead as the most aggressive anti-refugee voice in the country while more than a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany last year.
Georg Pazderski, the AfD’s Berlin chairman, folded his arms on a large wooden table in a conference room at the party’s local office. His hair slicked back, from time to time he adjusted his watch under the cuff of his jacket sleeve.
The party official framed his opposition to refugees in religious and cultural terms, evoking stereotypes of them as illiterate and uneducated. “Imagine at what level we have to start with these people,” he said, arguing that it is “almost impossible” for asylum seekers to integrate into German society.
“I don’t think that there is much… possibility to integrate them in a way that they could stay in Germany. There is certainly a certain percentage that will manage it, but I think 90 percent will not manage it,” he said with a gentle nod of confidence.
“They’re coming from a different culture, mainly with an Islamic background, mainly from different countries,” Pazderski continued. “And they’re coming to a Christian culture – and this is totally different.”
Fantasies of violence
Pazderski blamed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door asylum policy for the violence.
“There are some people who might [use] this anti-migrant or anti-refugee rhetoric,” he said. “But on the other hand, who is responsible… that something like this can happen?”
Pazderski denounced those who attack refugees as “misguided”, but said a portion of the responsibility lies with the government.
“We don’t have to demonstrate in front of a refugee camp or something like that,” he said. “We have to demonstrate in front of the office of the chancellor and of the parties.”
Despite his claims that the party opposes violence, however, party members have called for a crackdown on Muslims and senior AfD members have evoked violent rhetoric.
In late March, a local branch of the AfD in lower Bavaria called for all mosques to be shut down by the government in a 45-page draft of party principles, according to local media. “Islam does not belong to Germany,” the group writes, suggesting a ban on the “construction and operation of mosques”.
Some analysts argue that AfD members have waded into the area of incitement to violence, such as when the party’s leader, Frauke Petry, proclaimed that officers “should use fire arms if necessary” in order to “prevent illegal border crossings”.
“No policeman wants to fire on a refugee and I don’t want that either,” she told the regional newspaper Mannheimer Morgen back in January, arguing that “police must stop refugees entering German soil” nonetheless.
Stefan Reinecke, editor of the Die Tageszeitung newspaper, accused the AfD of having two faces, a polished one that they show to the broader public and another reserved for their base.
“They are playing both parts… There is this fantasy about violence, and on the other hand, [they say] ‘No, it was a misunderstanding’,” Reinecke said in his Berlin office.
“When there are right-wing people who think it’s OK to burn houses, then this is the other side of what AfD is telling [us]: no refugees, they are our enemies, we have to defend against them,” he added.
Yet, Reinecke argued that Merkel’s failure to communicate the refugee policies to the broader German public created the conditions for the AfD’s rise.
He said many Germans “have the feeling that there is money for the refugees and not for them”.
“A lot of people, especially in the lower class, have this feeling, and this is the main reason… for the success of the AfD.”
As violence grows, public sentiment has also taken a turn for the worse. A recent survey by YouGov, an opinion research firm, found that 29 percent of Germans believe using weapons to prevent refugees from entering the country is justified.
Back at the refugee solidarity protest in Marzhan-Hellersdorf, organiser Raiko Hannemann said he hopes the AfD’s success in the recent elections will serve as a “wake-up call” for Germans.
“When I see this, I am already quite optimistic,” he said, gesturing towards the crowd. A band on stage started up, a solidarity song echoing throughout the square.
“But you don’t see them in the news. What you see in the news is [some] Nazi attacks refugees, or a Nazi attacks a political opponent.”
Ramadan, a 47-year-old Syrian actor whose wife and children are still stuck in his native Homs, sat in his small de facto room – two bunk beds cordoned off by cardboard walls – in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood.
He recalled being tortured during interrogation after being arrested in Syria. They accused him of having ties to anti-government protesters. “I found out that I was wanted for interrogation again,” he told Al Jazeera. “So, I decided to leave. I knew that they would kill me.”
Referring to the political climate in Germany, he said: “I can’t go back to Syria, but I also feel that many people don’t want us here. You don’t know what it feels like to be treated like this, to be unwelcome.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_