Why a German Turk opened a hotline for the far right
It was early 2016 and 20 refugees had arrived in the east German town of Clausnitz.
An angry mob greeted the bus that carried them, blocking the road with their cars and shouting at the visibly distressed refugees.
The scene was captured on video, which was first uploaded by users of an anti-refugee Facebook page.
It was this dark, shaky video that left Ali Can feeling disturbed.
There have been several recent incidents of xenophobia in Germany, a country that saw nearly 900,000 refugees and migrants arrive in 2015 alone.
“I was wondering where the hate was coming from,” Ali told Al Jazeera. “Why was there no empathy?”
In March 2016, he toured east Germany, a region home to burning anti-immigration sentiment.
A year earlier, in the east German city of Dresden, close to the Czech Republic, some 25,000 supporters of the anti-Islam Pegida party rallied against the “Islamisation” of the West.
The party has held several similar rallies since, drawing thousands out on to the streets.
|Pegida supporters regularly hold anti-Islam protests in east Germany, a region home to anti-immigrant sentiment [File: Sean Gallup/Getty Images]|
“I researched to find out where I could find neo-Nazis or initiatives against immigrants,” Can said.
His plan? Talk to people who did not want immigrants like him in Germany and understand their motives.
Can attended a Pegida rally in the east and marched alongside far-right protesters. When he returned to his home town of Giessen, a woman he had met at the protest phoned to tell him about a nice encounter she had with a refugee.
“She probably had nobody she could tell that experience too,” Can said.
He thought he had found the answer: people needed to talk.
“Most people have prejudices and are scared of what they don’t know,” he said. “But that does not mean they are racist.”
‘Call me if you’re worried about refugees’
Later, motivated by the footage of the chanting mob in Clausnitz, Can posted a video revealing his phone number on Facebook, inviting people to call him.
“You can reach me on this number if you’re worried, angry or just have questions about the increasing number of refugees in Germany,” Can said in the video, in August.
Previously, he had held workshops to teach people about immigration.
Racism and prejudice are often rooted in the fear of losing control.
Ali Can, hotline creator
One year has passed since he started to receive phone calls from strangers.
In that time, he has received roughly 200 calls.
His hotline is open twice a week for a couple of hours.
“Sometimes nobody calls, some days six people call,” he said.
Integrating refugees, the perceived incompatibility of Islam with German culture, and the fear that migrants make Germany less safe are the main themes discussed.
After an attack, Ali said he receives more calls than usual and callers can become more aggressive.
“Racism and prejudice are often rooted in the fear of losing control and the unknown, as well as old-fashioned thinking structures,” he said. “It’s best to meet those fears in person.”
As a former asylum seeker, he is well placed to help rid people of their fears.
“I’m the example that integration can work,” said Can, who is studying to become a German language teacher.
|Protesters marched against the AfD, a far-right party that did well in polls [File: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images]|
Ali has come to understand that his main role is to listen.
“Then I ask questions to see how much potential there is and tell my own anecdotes,” he said.
Listing facts that dispute the caller’s view doesn’t work. Instead, he looks for similarities.
If somebody calls to say that they want to curb the number of refugees to feel safe, Ali will explain that he too wants to live in a safe country.
“It’s about the caller reflecting [upon] himself critically [during the conversation]. It’s not just about convincing or lecturing him.”
Allowing people to talk about their fears decreases the likelihood of them turning to right-wing populists, who use those fears to advance their political agenda, he said.
‘Nothing better’ than talking to each other
But can Ali’s approach really have an effect?
Holger Lengfeld, a sociologist at the University of Leipzig who has researched AfD voters, thinks it certainly sends a good message.
“Talking to each other is always good, there’s nothing better,” he told Al Jazeera. “One of the foundations of democracy is that you have to listen to opinions of others even if you don’t like them.
“It does signal something that democracy needs: we have different views, but we have to keep talking to each other.”
But he acknowledged that many are closed off to dialogue.
“You are only able to talk to those who are willing to do so – and that’s the dilemma,” he said.
In addition to phone calls, Ali also receives emails and sometimes even personal visits.
In a book he recently wrote about the hotline, he recounts how an AfD voter visited his parents’ takeaway restaurant to speak to him.
The same man now regularly passes by for a meal, talking to Can and his family.
“I want to add grey areas to the picture that is often painted black and white – which is, on the one hand, the good people, and, on the other hand, the racists,” he said.
His motto is “love is stronger than hate.”
“Yes, it’s naive,” he said. After a brief silence, he added: “What’s the alternative?”
|Syrian refugees and their children attend an election campaign rally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September [File: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters]|