"Join us in the AfD! We could always use a token black guy like you as a model migrant." This statement, and the person who uttered it, Mr. Wengert, left a lasting impression on Ali Can. Can listened to him for more than an hour and a half on the phone, while the former member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the CDU, pointed out the connection between refugees and possible terrorists, the abolition of weapons regulations, even highlighting Can's own hypocrisy on these issues.
A contentious verbal exchange at times, but one that ended with Can's realization that "not all AfD voters are racists. And they're not all malicious people wanting to infiltrate the political scene," he told DW.
Read more:What is Pegida?
The migrant with the chocolate bunny
Can, a 23-year-old student whose parents moved from Turkey to Germany when he was a child, came up with the idea for a hotline for "concerned citizens" - a term often used in Germany to describe people voicing anti-immigration views under the pretext of fearing for the country's future. It was March 2016 and he showed up to a Pegida demonstration in Dresden with a chocolate Easter bunny in his hand, playing the role of - as he puts it - "a migrant you can trust."
He tried to engage in constructive conversations with demonstrators who just minutes earlier were yelling "deportation, deportation." In the end, he received some smiles, but the decisive moment for him came a few weeks later when a woman called him after his tour had ended. Previously, she had told him of her fears of foreign men ever since the mass sexual assaults that took place on New Year's Eve in Cologne earlier that year. Now she wanted to tell him about a positive encounter with a refugee. And thus the hotline was born.
What began as a two-hour a week service quickly turned into a round-the-clock project of answering numerous calls and emails outside of his "office hours." The demand was so great that Can eventually took on help and took time off from university.
Many callers just wanted to get something off their chests, Can says. "Imagine it like sitting on a bench. Then someone comes along and says what's on his mind because he just read the newspaper. Then he stands up again and goes about his way."
He describes roughly half of the callers as liberal-minded. These are the people he never really intended to reach, he says, because he considered them cosmopolitan. But clearly they still had a need to talk.
Some asked him for his opinion, while others expressed their misgivings. Can described how one man called recently to say that it was inconsistent to strive for a secular way of life in Germany and then have women walk around in public buildings in veils.
Revolving door for concerned citizens
"I have nothing against asylum seekers, but I have a problem with Islam, you know?" This is a typical sentence from the kind of person Can would like to reach.
He has put excerpts from his hotline conversations in a book "Hotline für besorgte Bürger" or "Hotline for Concerned Citizens." The 23-year-old hopes it can help others learn how to have respectful discussions with those who lean to the right, whom he describes as standing in a revolving door.
"They could turn towards the right. Or they could remain conservative or liberal-conservative if someone talks to them," Can told DW. Automatically labeling these people as racists and right-wingers, he says, only leads to their turning toward those who want to exploit their doubts and concerns.
Laughter a good start
Good people versus racists, "refugees welcome" versus "refugees out." Society is not that easy to divide, says Can, who wants to put some shades of gray into a debate that has been very black and white.
"Even among those who criticize migration, there are some with compassion for people drowning in the Mediterranean," he says.
Listening without preaching and looking beyond the hateful slogans are the goals of his hotline, book, workshops and presentations. He goes to schools and universities and tries to sensitize "native" Germans to blanket prejudice using role-play and theater "because laughter is a good start," he says.
Can also created an integration test. Successful test-takers are those who receive a mark as "models of integration." "Now they are officially allowed to wear white socks and sandals," he jokes.Nastassja Shtrauchler (wg)