From a distance, Firas Alshater might strike some in his adopted home of Germany as a stereotypical Islamic hardliner. The Syrian refugee wears a long black beard, shaves his head and speaks with a pronounced Arabic accent. But meet him face-to-face, or click on one of the YouTube videos that have made him a viral star, and you’ll notice the telltale signs of a Berlin hipster: the piercings, the small tattoo on his neck of the word “freedom,” the handlebar mustache.
His comedy is as disarming as his fashion sense. In a nation struggling to integrate more than a million asylum seekers from the Muslim world, Alshater’s videos invite Germans to take a closer look before passing judgment on the new arrivals. “What I try to do is challenge people’s perceptions of refugees,” he says at his office inside a co-working space in a graffiti-covered district of Berlin.
Alshater, 25, is off to an impressive start. For his first video, posted to YouTube in late January, Alshater stood blindfolded on a square in the center of Berlin next to a handwritten sign: “I’M A SYRIAN REFUGEE,” it read. “I TRUST YOU. DO YOU TRUST ME? HUG ME!” After some hesitation, many passersby did give him a hug, and the clip attracted more than 700,000 views, turning Alshater into a leading voice for the assimilation of asylum seekers as TV networks and newspapers across the country picked up his story.
Growing up in Damascus, Alshater studied theater and dreamed of becoming an actor until the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011. Like many secular and educated Syrians, Alshater joined the uprising, using a video camera to document atrocities committed by the Syrian regime. That type of activism got him locked up for nine months in a Syrian prison, where he says he was subjected to torture before his family managed to negotiate his release. Fearing another arrest amid Syria’s escalating civil war, he fled to Europe with the help of a German filmmaker, who arranged his papers and got him settled in Berlin.
Alshater quickly saw that settling in would not be easy. His arrival in May 2013 coincided with a raucous cultural festival in Berlin, when the city’s streets fill up with parades and revelers in elaborate and often revealing costumes. For Alshater, who grew up in a far more conservative society, this was instant culture shock. “But you have to accept it,” he says.
For integration to work, both the natives and the newcomers have to look beyond their first impressions, and Alshater’s Youtube channel has shown that humor is an effective means of encouraging that. “Smiles are the same in every language,” he says. And if his videos attract enough of them, he might just inspire Germany to take a closer look at the newly arrived refugees and, eventually, accept them.