“I speak out because I’m part of German society now”
How the Syrian journalist turned activist tries to change the perception of Arab culture.
Being quiet about unjust situations is no option for Sakher Al-Mohamad – neither in Syria nor in Germany. Publicly criticizing the Syrian government in his home country was no longer safe for him. The journalist arrived in Germany as a refugee in December 2014 and has since raised his voice about many political issues. He has protested against deportations of refugees and long approval times for asylum applications. Earlier this year, he made headlines with his campaign “Syrians Against Sexism” after a string of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne.
“Against our values”
When Sakher heard the news about the sexual attacks he was shocked and worried. In the first few days of January, some media reported that the men who sexually assaulted women were all refugees. The public debate soon centered on Muslims and how to deal with young men arriving in Germany who come from cultures where women lack the freedom and protection they enjoy in the West. “The media generalized by saying ‘all of the refugees, all of the Arabs’”, remembers Sakher. “But what happened is against our values, against our cultures and against our communities, too”. The journalist decided to put a message on Facebook saying he lives in Cologne and thinks it is the most beautiful city in Germany with many friendly people and that he wanted to tell everyone that he spent New Year’s Eve at home.
People thanked him but also said that he shouldn’t feel the need to apologize or explain himself. Grateful for the kind words, Sakher felt motivated to do more. He wanted to give people around the world the chance to express their feelings about the events on New Year’s Eve.
On 9th of January he founded the campaign “Syrians Against Sexism”. One week later, hundreds of people came together in front of Cologne’s train station, where the attacks happened, to protest against the negative image of Arab men. They held up signs reading “We are for equality” and handed out 1000 flowers to passers-by.
The gesture made headlines across Germany. Sakher knows how to create a successful campaign. He studied political science in Damascus and worked as a researcher and journalist in Syria and Abu Dhabi.
In his first political campaign in June 2015, he rallied one hundred refugees behind him to protest in front of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Dortmund for a faster process of their asylum applications and against the deportation of Syrian refugees to the EU countries they first entered. In Germany, people with an official asylum status can apply for visas for their family members who stayed behind in Syria. But this law doesn’t exist in all European member states. Being sent back to Italy, Hungary or Bulgaria would mean that refugees couldn’t get their families out of the war zone. The protest started with a 3 hour demonstration but then turned into a camp in front of Dortmund’s train station. For 53 days, Sakher and dozens of other refugees slept in tents in the middle of the city until the Federal Office announced that no Syrian would be deported from Germany and that their files would be processed quickly. A big victory.
On 5th of August, just a few days after the end of the protest, Sakher received his visa. “I’m now a half potato, I’m entitled to stay in Germany for three years”, Sakher posted on Twitter, a joke in reference to the nickname Germans are known for abroad.
Almost one year later, Sakher seems to have integrated well with the rest of the potatoes. From Monday to Friday his days are packed with German and English language courses. Once or twice a week, he meets with his tandem partner Richard to practice German. In return, Sakher teaches Richard Arabic. In between classes, Sakher goes dancing. Modern Dance is not his strong suit but he loves to try new things and he can’t sit still. He needs to move.
Sakher says he became an acitivst by chance. First and foremost, he is a journalist and researcher. But when he feels that things aren’t right, he takes matters into his own hands. Sakher is not the kind of person who can wait and hope for the best. “I just do things and people call me an activist”, he explains.
“I consider myself as part of the Germany society. This is why I speak out.”