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Firas Alshater can hardly keep his eyes open. The Syrian rose at dawn for an interview on German breakfast TV. He’s being pursued by Israel’s Channel 10. Germany's president, Joachim Gauck, has invited him to a reception.
“It’s f*****g crazy,” he says, pointing to a calendar on his laptop blocked out with interview requests. “It’s nine till nine, nonstop.”
Mr Alshater could be on the way to becoming Germany’s most famous refugee. He is already a YouTube sensation: his first short video went viral, attracting 2.5m views. He’s been profiled in heavyweight German newspapers and asked his views on the latest Macedonian border closures on TV talkshows. Several female YouTubers have proposed marriage.
A pudgy 24-year-old with a lip ring, shaved head and beard, Mr Alshater shrugs when asked why he’s so popular. “There’s so much hate on the internet right now,” he says. “People need something to make them happy.”
What is clear is that he has injected some much-needed levity into an otherwise deadly serious domestic debate about the refugee crisis. The clip that made his reputation is a three-minute performance entitled “Who are these Germans?” in which he stands blindfolded on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz with a sign saying: “I am a Syrian refugee. I trust you — do you trust me?” Those who do are invited to give him a hug.
Mr Alshater stood on the square for about 1½ hours before the hugs started, but then they came thick and fast. “Germans need a bit more time but then there’s no stopping them,” he says in the video. “That’s why integration will work — one day.”
It is an optimistic message at a depressing time. The mood in Germany has shifted dramatically since last autumn when Chancellor Angela Merkel threw open the country’s borders to refugees escaping war in Syria and Iraq. Then, Germans stood in Munich railway station applauding the new arrivals and handing them sweets.
But as the migrants keep coming — 1.1m arrived last year alone — news bulletins now bristle with reports of anti-foreigner rallies and protests, arson attacks on refugee hostels, politicians from Ms Merkel’s own party calling for limits on migrants and policy paralysis in Brussels.
Jan Heilig, a documentary film-maker who produced Mr Alshater’s videos, says the split in German society over asylum-seekers is now “worse than the Berlin Wall”. “There’s no neutral ground any more — you have to choose,” he says. Yet in the debate about the pros and cons of immigration, one party is almost entirely absent — the refugees themselves.
Firas Alshater might be able to change that, he says. “He’s made a hole in the wall and is saying ‘come and take a look’,” says Mr Heilig. “He could help to reconcile the two sides.”
He points to the dozens of comments left on YouTube and Facebook by people who want all Syrians to go home but loved the video all the same. “We have remarkably few haters and trolls,” he says.
Peter Littger, a German cultural commentator, says it’s Mr Alshater’s authenticity that is attractive. “He’s obviously gone through a lot, but he’s been able to process that and turn it into something entertaining,” he says. “There’s something very witty and likeable about him.”
A native of Damascus, Mr Alshater was imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime for his activism and critical video reports on the war. He came to Germany two-and-a-half years ago to work for Mr Heilig’s TV production company filmbit and, after receiving threats from both Assad’s agents and Isis, decided to stay.
He admits that adjusting to life in Germany was tough. “You believe . . . you’ll find money in the park or print it at home,” he says. Then there's the language. “Life is too short to learn German,” he says.
The hugging video arose in response to a request from one of filmbit’s clients, a charity that wanted to see videos featuring and produced by refugees. The company has since posted follow-ups, including one showing a group of black-clad rightwing types taking classes in touching their first refugee baby. A total of ten videos are planned.
Filmbit is also in talks with a German broadcaster on creating a TV show hosted by Mr Alshater in which Germans and refugees cook meals together. The two are also working on a sitcom, styled on the Big Bang Theory but featuring a group of asylum-seekers. The working title is Cuckoo Alemania (the Arabic word for Germany).
Mr Alshater admits he was nervous before the experiment on Alexanderplatz. “You don’t know if someone’s going to hug you or hit you,” he says. But it was worth it, to show that not all Germans are racists and “not all refugees want to bomb the place”.
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