An interview with Firas Alshater “It's not my dream job, however, to be a refugee”

Firas Alshater
Firas Alshater | Photo (detail) © Jim Naughton

“Who are these Germans?” This is the question Firas Alshater asks on his Youtube channel called Zukar. Check out this interview with the Syrian filmmaker who lives in Berlin and find out his views on acceptance, on what a home country and humour means to him.

Mr. Alshater, since the beginning of 2016 you have been causing quite a stir on the social networks with your YouTube channel “Zukar”. In the media, you are often called the  “Refugee YouTuber”. How would you describe yourself?

I'm just someone who is trying to draw attention to problems – both for German society and for refugees. I get feedback from people who like my videos, but also from right-wing extremists. As you can see, I reach very different audiences. It's not my dream job, however, to be a refugee in Germany, it's not the career I decided on.

In your first video you introduce yourself with the words: “In Syria I made films -  but only when I was not in jail for making films.” You have been in Germany since May 2013. Two very different lives – how do you deal with that?

I decided from the outset that I - regardless of what German society is like - must accept the people so that they will accept me. I have to continue what I've been doing and do what I want to do. That's my right.

In this video, which made you famous in one fell swoop, you stand blindfolded on Alexanderplatz, next to a sign that says "”I am a Syrian refugee. I trust you - do you trust me? Embrace me!” How did the idea come about?

When, in the autumn of 2014, so many people were screaming “Foreigners Go Home"” at the Pegida demonstrations in Dresden, I asked myself: Are all Germans like that? To find out, I placed myself on  Alexanderplatz in Berlin, and shot the video.

That's what integration is all about

To what conclusion did you the come?

The Germans - that is 80 million people and one big society. One cannot say, however, that they are like this or like that. And that's how it is with refugees. They also come from large societies that have all kinds of very different people. I have to accept people as they are and vice versa. That's what integration is all about. And that's the message I want to get across with my videos.

Your Web clips have been professionally produced right down to the smallest detail. Who were the people behind them?

The team consists of producer and co-author, Jan Heilig, a cutter, a cameraman and me. We write the script together, exchange ideas and decide together what is the best thing to do. I shoot my videos in German, but I also post them in several languages - Afghan, Arabic, English – so that they can be understood by all my fans.

It is not my job to be a politician

You tackle social debates and problems with a lot of wit and irony. After the aggressive attacks on refugees in Clausnitz in February 2016 you made the video “Mein erster Flüchtling” (My First Refugee) in which you touch upon people's fear of contact in the form of satire. How important is humour in your work?

Humour is a good way of getting people to open their hearts. I'm trying to show with humour, how I, as a human being, as me Firas, deal with certain problems - and not as a refugee, nor as a Syrian.
Do you see yourself as a political comedian?

It is not my job to be a politician or to talk about political issues. I'm just trying to get my message across with humour. It is important that we encounter each other without prejudices. People are just people, wherever they come from.

But isn't it prejudices that play a particularly important role in the social debate on the refugee issue?

I think the situation is actually not so critical. The media, however, love to focus partcularly on the problems. At the moment we hardly hear anything about people who help refugees, but more about right-wing extremists. We seem to forget that there are still many people who welcome refugees.

Home is a place where I feel perceived as a human being

Following the attacks in Brussels in March 2016 you posted the video “Brüssel. Wir alle!” (Brussels, us all!) on the Net. Its message was “Arabs in Germany! This is your new home.” You, yourself, live in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. What does “home” mean to you?

Home is a place where I feel comfortable, as a part of society. It is the place where I feel perceived as a human being and must not be afraid of speaking my mind. In Syria you only have to make a statement or post a video against Assad, and you end up in prison.
In 2015 almost 80,000 refugees came to Berlin alone, many of them from Syria. Are you  a kind of helpline and point of contact for your compatriots?

I have many contacts with refugees, especially with people who I knew in Syria. Many come to me with their questions, they ask me to help them, to translate something. Quite a lot of people know me now due to my YouTube work.

What are your plans for the future?

We naturally want to produce another series of “Zukar” clips, I have a place on the film editing course at the film school in Babelsberg, and in autumn my first book is to be published. There are many ways for me to work, many doors are open. I just have to find out what suits me best.

#PromisedLand
 
Firas Alshater (born in 1991) grew up in Damascus, where he studied drama. He was co-organiser of the first demonstrations against the Assad regime and for a free Syria. As an activist and filmmaker, he documented the developments in his home country, he was also imprisoned and tortured. Firas Alshater has been granted asylum in Germany and has been living in Berlin since 2013.