Wednesday

25th Apr 2018

Syrians tell Cologne: 'We're against sexism'

  • Saturday saw a protest in front of Cologne's main train station, the scene of hundreds of assaults against women. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Three months ago, he was still in Syria. But on Saturday afternoon (16 January), the young man who told this website his name is Derar, and that he is 19 years old, was standing outside Cologne's central train station.

He was holding up a sign that said that Syrians “are against sexism”.

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  • Some had laid flowers on the steps leading to the Cologne cathedral

Derar didn't quite master English or German, but he was able to explain that he had been studying for two years in Syria to become an engineer, until he was drafted to join the army. He decided it should be “bye, bye Syria”, and added it is “very good” to be in Germany.

Now, he said, he is living with his cousin in a refugee shelter not far from Cologne, where on New Year's Eve hundreds of German women were assaulted by intoxicated men, many of them with a migrant or refugee background.

“Tut mir leid fuer Silvester”, said Derar, using some German words he knew to say he was sorry about what happened during the Silvester festivities, as New Year's Eve is known here.

Derar had come to the station's square on the cold Saturday afternoon to join a protest, held to show solidarity with the victims, but also to oppose blaming all migrants and refugees for the attacks.

At the end of the afternoon, there was a crowd of between 100 and 200 people, of different colours and gender. According to German media, earlier that day around 350 Syrians had showed up.

Elsewhere in Germany, in the city of Stuttgart, around 7,000 people attended a protest Saturday against violence and racism, according to news agency AP.

“We are a multicultural city, here in Cologne,” said a woman on a stage, who identified herself as Tania and said she had lived in the western German city for many years.

“We experience sexism from men of all nationalities,” she said.

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” Tania shouted.

And while many in the crowd surrounding the stage repeated the chant, it failed to spread to the rest of the square, where like on any central place in a city, many were minding their own business, walking to and from the station.

One man could be heard mumbling dismissive sounds aimed at the protesters.

Several manned police cars stood in various places on the square, while a handful of flowers that had been laid on the steps leading to Cologne's immense cathedral, opposite the train station, were another reminder of the traumatic events that are likely to resonate in Germany's public debate for many months to come.

'Today you can say racist things'

A debate, the focal point of which had begun shifting to the right of the political spectrum already before New Year's Eve, said a German man who preferred to only be identified by his first name, Heiner.

“I'm worried about that. Opinions you could not say a few year ago, because it would have been 'racist' - today you can say these things. Like generalisations about people from Islamic countries, and generalisations about refugees,” said Heiner, who was standing on the station's square watching the stage from a distance.

The bearded German, wearing a beanie hat against the cold and drinking a to-go cup of tea, said he feared the possible consequences of the increasingly hostile climate.

“Already you see daily attacks on refugee homes. I'm fearful that we will soon have deaths,” noted Heiner.

He added that in reality, the German state is not as welcoming as it is being portrayed in international media.

“It is much more nuanced,” he said of chancellor Angela Merkel's so-called open arms policy. “Some of the refugee shelters are really desolate”.

Heiner also felt that the German state is relying too much on volunteers to care for the refugees.

“Some of the volunteers reportedly had burnouts,” he noted, adding apologetically - without having been asked - that he “didn't find the time” to volunteer himself.

Toxic online debate

Heiner also said that the public debate online has become poisonous.

Following a “long piece” he had written about sexism on a social networking site, he received responses that wished migrants would rape his daughter.

He questioned the intentions of some Germans who have come out against the migrants who assaulted women.

“It is like people need a scapegoat before we talk about sexism. But some who now jumped on the issue of gender rights, before, they were talking about feminazi's [a derogatory term aimed at feminists].”

Standing next to him, also with a cup of tea, was Heiner's girlfriend. He asked not to identify her, so that a combination of their names would not lead back to them, a request which showed how toxic the digital atmosphere had become.

“I feel instrumentalised,” she said about her gender. “I'm an object they use to point their hatred,” she noted about people who use the Cologne attacks to argue for less refugees.

“It is hypocrisy.”

Analysis

How Cologne assaults stunned authorities and media

The revelation and coverage of mass sexual assaults on women on New Year's Eve demonstrate the challenges in Germany's debates on integration, political correctness, and sexism.

Cologne attacks put Merkel under pressure

German leader cancels trip to Davos after a weekend which saw far-right protesters clash with police and amid hundreds of criminal complaints over New Year's Eve sex assaults.

Merkel: Sexual assaults raise 'serious questions'

The German chancellor has said "the fundamentals of cultural co-existence" must be discussed, as more cases of assault by alleged migrants are reported in Cologne and other European cities.

Germany proposes EU petrol tax to pay for refugees

Germany's finance minister, Wolgang Schaeuble, has proposed an EU-wide petrol tax to cover the costs of the refugee crisis, while saying Europe is moving to slowly on tackling the issue.

Analysis

Orban, the 'anti-Merkel', emboldens European right

Hungary's premier Viktor Orban has inspired 'illiberalism' across central Europe and far-right politicians in the West. His expected re-election this Sunday will further reinforce his standing as a symbol for being tough on Europe's political mainstream.

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