A Syrian refugee became a YouTube star by explaining German culture to Germans — Quartz


Firas AlShater, a Syrian refugee, became a YouTube celebrity overnight. In January, the theater student made a video describing an experiment in which he stood blindfolded on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz with a sign saying he was Muslim and asking for hugs. (It was his version of a street performance performed by Arab artists in various countries.) but his clumsy and endearing manner won thousands of fans.

Days after it was posted on YouTube, the video had 300,000 views and German media bombarded the soon-to-be 25-year-old AlShater with interview requests. Fans recognize AlShater on the street and on public transport. Sometimes they even try to kiss her. He also recently landed a book deal.

AlShater’s German co-producer Jan Heilig attributes the popularity of this and other videos made by the couple not only to their lighthearted humor – a genre that Germans don’t quite master – but also to the lack of voices of refugees in an otherwise very serious debate on immigration in the country.

“Firas is the first,” Heilig said. “He doesn’t just answer questions people ask, but really says what he means. “

They created a YouTube channel called “Zukar” or “Sugar”. His origin story is murky. The impetus appears to have been a request from a charity Heilig works with to create videos featuring refugees. They decided to take footage from AlShater’s experience, which they had shot earlier, and interweave it with his monologue about the Germans.

After it became popular, they quickly followed up with another video in which AlShater explains how cats can rack up likes on YouTube and get asylum easier than him, saying, “If you try hard enough, you can learn to hate anything.”

They chose the name “Zukar” because it sounds the same in German, English and Arabic, and plan to create a total of ten videos, funded by individual donations. They also branched out from the monologue form of AlShater.

A more recent short, uploaded in late February, was a response to a video showing right-wing extremists attacking a bus full of refugees in Clausnitz, near Dresden in eastern Germany. Zukar’s humorous shot features black-clad right-wing extremists from Clausnitz learning to overcome their fear of strangers by touching a refugee baby.

By the time I meet AlShater and Heilig, they are well versed in media relations. They work in the offices of the Heilig production company, called filmbit, located in a maze of industrial buildings east of Berlin. They told me that within three weeks of posting that first video, they had appeared on many major German morning shows, had visits from international journalists, and had meetings with nine German editors. They ask all of their visitors (including me) to write a note on a piece of colored paper and wrap two sugar cubes to leave in their bowl.

Renu Rayasam

The fish bowl

As we speak, AlShater, dressed in gray sweatpants, a t-shirt and slippers with holes in his toe, sprawled on a sofa and played with his Beats headphones. He explains that they had the idea for the first video after watching anti-refugee demonstrations and thinking that the Germans marching in the parades could not be representative of the country, but he wanted to approach the subject with humor.

“I’ve seen enough hate,” said AlShater, who said he also spent time imprisoned by the Assad regime and aided in captivity by Islamists. “It’s easier to approach people with laughter and humor.”

He said he had been interested in theater since he was a teenager in Damascus and studied theater and film at university. In 2012, he met Heilig, who was looking for a local filmmaker to help him complete a black comedy documentary titled Syria inside, after the death of his first collaborator during the filming. Heilig sponsored AlShater’s work visa to go to Germany and in May 2013 AlShater was granted asylum to stay. While her parents are still in Syria, AlShater says her siblings fled and arrived in Berlin. He had planned to continue his film studies in Germany, but with the book deal and the rest of the film series, he’s not sure he’ll have the time in the near future.