Together we are strong

Young people, mostly from immigrant backgrounds, are working for a Cologne initiative fighting religious fanaticism. They aim to combat the radicalisation of others of their generation by coming together as peers. By Nina Niebergall

By Nina Niebergall

Mourad has briefly dropped by the office of the initiative "180° Wende" ("180° Turn") in the western city of Cologne. He is wearing a black leather jacket over his polo shirt; his hair is neatly parted and his beard is trimmed. When he begins to talk about his experiences with the employment centre in Cologne and some of his job interviews, he briefly comes across as having lost his confidence. "Somehow, all doors were closed to me," he says. "I didn't find a solution." There were people who wanted to exploit this lack of perspective, the 22-year-old recalls today. "You couldn't tell who was good and who was bad."

The head of the initiative, Mimoun Berrissoun, has met hundreds of young people in the same situation since the project "180° Turn" was established. The radicalisation of young people always stems from the same reasons, says the 30-year-old social scientist. "They get on the wrong path when they can't make any headway in their lives," he explains, such as when they can't fit in at school, have nothing to fill their time, or "get lost somewhere in a high-rise district."

Speaking from experience

Some five years ago, Berrissoun felt so powerless when confronted with such stories that he decided to do something about it. Because, as he says, "it worked for us." When he says "us," he is referring to people with an immigrant background who are integrated in Germany and have successful careers. Berrissoun himself is the child of Moroccan immigrants who were "guest workers" – the name given in Germany to workers recruited from abroad, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s. He grew up in Cologne's Kalk district, where the "180° Turn" office is located and where 40 percent of the population consists of people from abroad.

Mimoun Berrissoun in front of the 180° Turn office in Cologne-Kalk (photo: N. Niebergall)
Mimoun Berrissoun in front of the 180° Turn office in Cologne-Kalk (photo: N. Niebergall)

Berrissoun often refers to "us" when he talks about the problems young immigrants have. He says that his staff members and numerous volunteers want to treat the teens as peers. The "180° Turn" initiative operates via a network of students, trainees and young people of different nationalities who move in circles where teens are at risk of being radicalised – in their soccer teams, mosques and community centres. So they are familiar with the problems, lifestyle and language of the specific social groups, explains Berrissoun. "That makes them authentic."

In a training course, the network members are taught to recognise the signs of radicalisation in people. Does someone watch violent videos? Does a person use another language? Does a person take certain kinds of drugs?  If the network members detect any changes, they can intervene at an early stage.

Alparslan Korknaz shares this aim. The 22-year-old university student works as a "junior coach" at "180° Turn" and helps other young people find their bearings in the labour market. One of these people is Harun Tunca. The high-school student is writing applications for possible jobs after he graduates. He does not come from a family of academics, he says, so he is grateful for the help he gets from the initiative. Alparislan and Harun are spending the afternoon together. They allow themselves plenty of time and talk about other things as well.

Lost in the system?

Berrissoun calls the days when young people like Harun drop by the "180° Turn" office to get help with applications "CV days". This is also part of the preventive work. The young people could also make use of state support, but the "question is whether they are reached by this support system," says Berrissoun.

Mourad is one of those who has often felt misunderstood. Everywhere he went, he used to feel as if he was "lumped together" with everyone else and that people saw him as somebody who did not belong in Germany, he says. "That is not what I am," counters the 22-year-old. "I was born in Germany and feel German, but I am a person from two cultures."

The social scientist Berrissoun knows what his protege is talking about. In the past, people used to talk about the "Turk" or the "Moroccan", and now they say "the Muslim", he says. Berrissoun is certain that the current social debate is leaving its mark on the group that it is about, especially young people who grew up in Germany. When teenagers withdraw from society, it is usually an act of rebellion, he says. Then, radical groups have it easy; they simply need to signalise, "You belong to us."

In the grasp of the Salafists

In the afternoon, Berrissoun has an appointment for a special meeting. A volunteer has a problem with a teenager who has drifted into the Salafist scene. It is a sensitive topic and the boy's name must remain anonymous. Berrissoun and the volunteer listen to the radio station the teen gets his information from. Two preachers are broadcasting straight from Saudi Arabia. The content is religious and conservative, but not radical, explains Berrissoun. For example, the radio preachers distance themselves from the terror group Islamic State; "it could be worse," he says.

Nonetheless, the members of "180° Turn" want to stay on the ball and perhaps try to integrate the boy into a discussion group with teenagers who speak and dress the same way he does, but have found an alternative lifestyle for themselves. The "180° Turn" group needs its volunteers, as it cannot afford to hire more paid staff. "We could do even more if we had more resources," says Berrissoun.

Mimoun Berrissoun with two multipliers in the 180° Turn office in Cologne-Kalk (photo: DW/M. Smajic)
A project worth copying: a growing number of young people are getting involved with "180° Turn" as multipliers. Over 200 multipliers have been trained since 2012. Among them are also young people who received assistance from the initiative. "As part of the network, they are under our protection and share the responsibility," says Berrissoun. The multipliers are charged with observing symptoms of radicalisation and criminality in their own circles – and to approach those involved

He envisions a network spanning the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The project is already running in other cities like Bonn and Leverkusen. Berrissoun is even receiving support from the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose foundation is promoting the work of the initiative and raising awareness about it.

Berrissoun radiates optimism and inexhaustible motivation. But he warns that there has to be more done on both sides: Muslims must send signals against terror and radicalisation and German society must work against exclusion.

The 22-year-old Mourad feels more at home in Germany since he has found the support of the Cologne initiative. Right now, he is doing an internship to prepare for an apprenticeship. "I am happy," he says and it sounds like he really is. Now he wants to return the favour and volunteer at "180° Turn".

Nina Niebergall

© Deutsche Welle 2017