Iranian exile carries torch for refugees in German election

Shoan Vaisi runs for parliament in response to racist hatred that forced Syrian to quit

Shoan Vaisi (L) resolved to stand at this month's election after Tareq Alaows (R) pulled out. Photo: Shoan Vaisi /AP
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After a barrage of racism forced a Syrian refugee out of Germany’s election race, another man who understood his hardships decided to take up the torch.

Shoan Vaisi wants to give a voice to refugees by running for parliament at this month’s general election, a decade after he fled persecution in Iran.

Mr Vaisi is from a rival party to Tareq Alaows, the Green-supporting Syrian exile whose hounding out by racists was met with dismay by politicians.

But he described his own candidacy for the Linke, a party on the leftmost flank of German politics, as an act of solidarity for refugees after Mr Alaows’s exit.

"That was the reason why I decided to be a candidate," he told The National. "My candidacy is an answer to his withdrawal.

"I didn’t want the subject of refugees not to be a topic in the election. So I decided to run."

Mr Vaisi, 31, fled his homeland in 2011. In election materials, he describes suffering repression as a member of a Kurdish family who worked with left-wing activists to promote women's rights.

In a months-long ordeal as a refugee, he escaped on foot to Turkey, then Greece, before eventually reaching Germany where he was granted asylum.

He made friends in Germany – partly through his sideline as a club wrestler – but his life was made harder by having to retake school exams after his Iranian diploma was not recognised.

Since then he has been a social worker, a translator and an activist for the Linke in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.

He said his background meant that refugee issues were particularly close to his heart. “I know from my own experience what isn’t working in terms of integration,” he said.

His other priority is young people, he said. "Through my work as a social worker, I’ve also had experience of working with children and young people that I bring into politics."

The arrival of Afghan refugees, seen here at a hangar of a US airbase in Germany, has pushed migration issues back up the agenda. AP

Integration has been a thorny political topic in Germany since the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrians during the 2015 refugee crisis.

A resulting backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies spurred the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which entered parliament for the first time in 2017.

The issue of refugees has risen back up the agenda after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Mr Vaisi said it was often mentioned by voters on the campaign trail.

"When we talk about war and peace, you always come back to the subject of refugees and migration," he said. "I try to explain why people flee, what it means for them and what responsibility Germany and Europe have.

"If we carry on like this, there will be more and more [refugees]. I would like a sustainable policy on refugees, and that we start to fight the causes of migration rather than the migrants."

The Linke's proposals to achieve this include a ban on all weapons exports from Germany. It wants a stronger European effort to rescue Mediterranean migrants at sea.

The party alarms some voters because of its anti-Nato stance and its descent from the Communist party that ruled East Germany during the Cold War.

Germany's centre-right Christian Democrats have sought to exploit this by raising fears that the Linke will join the next government with the Social Democrats and Greens.

Supporters of the Linke party, which hopes to reduce refugee flows by stopping arms exports, hold a protest at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Getty

Mr Vaisi is running in western Germany, outside the party's traditional eastern base. He is a candidate in a local constituency and is also on the regional party list for the election, which is on September 26.

People with migrant backgrounds are under-represented in parliament, making up only 58 out of 709 members elected in 2017, a lower share than in Germany's population as a whole.

The difficulties they face were highlighted by the racism directed at Mr Alaows during his aborted campaign for the Greens.

The positive feedback outweighs the negative
Shoan Vaisi

He withdrew his candidacy in March because of what he described as a "high threat level" to him and people close to him. Party colleagues called it a shameful day for German democracy.

Mr Vaisi said he did not receive hateful messages on the same scale as Mr Alaows, although some arrive whenever his name crops up.

“There are people who complain and make racist comments. But I don’t want to let that intimidate me,” he said.

“I also get very good, very emotive messages from people I don’t know. I would say 70 to 80 per cent of the messages I get are very positive. The positive feedback outweighs the negative."

Updated: September 12, 2021, 7:00 AM