Hands trembling, face panic-stricken, Fares Naem recalls the night he tried to stop a far-right attack – only to become its target. The Syrian refugee was on a tram in central Berlin when he spotted two white men hurling abuse at a black passenger.
“I could not keep silent,” he says. “What really shocked me was that no one did anything. I simply felt I had to say something.”
Naem began filming the confrontation on his mobile phone – drawing the attention, and the anger, of the man’s attackers. In retaliation, they turned on him.
When he tried to flee at the next stop, the men dragged him behind a shop and assaulted him. Bloodied and beaten, he went into the store to ask for help, but says he was ignored.
Another man came to his aid. Naem says the man apologized, insisting, “Not all Germans are like that.” But the attack left him scared.
“I lost my mobile phone. I was beaten. Especially psychologically, I was hurt,” he says. “And that was difficult. It was not the physical assault that bothered me most, it was more that there are people out there who have racist ideas in their minds and that people did not help me.”
Right-wing violence is on the rise in Germany. The country’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (BKA) received more than 3,700 reports of attacks on asylum seekers and refugees in 2016, a dramatic increase of 200% from the year before.
Physical and verbal attacks like the one Fares experienced are the most common, and they happen frequently on public transport, as his did.
This is, in part, a backlash to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s brief open door policy that allowed almost a million refugees into the country in 2015. In 2016, 280,000 migrants applied for asylum. Most came from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea and Pakistan.
Merkel’s policy proved polarizing – large parts of the community initially embraced refugees, greeting them at railway stations, and offering them food and places to stay.
But the welcome cooled after the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, where police say scores of migrant men assaulted women during firework displays in the city’s main square.
Germany keeps tabs on known neo-Nazi groups – and police keep an especially watchful eye on the north-eastern state of Saxony. Compared to other German states, Saxony has taken in fewer refugees, but has one of the highest rates of attacks on refugees in the country.
It was here that the right-wing Pegida group was founded in 2013 to promote the so-called “Peaceful Europeans against the Islamization of the West” movement.
Incidents like the Cologne attacks have provided fertile ground for neo-Nazi groups such as the “Freital Group” of violent extremists based in the small town of Freital in Saxony.
But German authorities are fighting back – the group of eight neo Nazi activists is on trial; federal prosecutors argue that the group’s attacks on refugee shelters and left-wing politicians in 2015 and 2016 are tantamount to that of a terrorist cell.
And some former far-right extremists are turning their backs on violence. Enrico (not his real name) has been undergoing counselling through the “Steig Aus” (Get out) program in Saxony, which supports those who want to break free from the right-wing scene and start a new life.
The 40-year-old former neo-Nazi recalls a time when hatred and violence were his everyday companions: “I wanted to provoke and then I was provoked myself by these people. We attacked asylum shelters, threw explosives at their homes. I only thought about the consequences in hindsight,” he says in a newly-released video aimed at combating right-wing extremism.
Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimates that 22,600 people in the country hold far-right views. At least 40% of those are thought to be willing to resort to violence in pursuit of their ideologies.
Eben Louw is a psychologist at Opra Gewalt – an anti-violence aid group – who counsels refugee victims like Fares Naem. He says threats can come from anywhere.
“One’s next door neighbour can become a violent attacker within minutes because they don’t want to see refugees in their country – and not only refugees … [but] any person who is perceived as a migrant.”
Naem does not know who his attackers were – and may never get an answer to that question; the police have yet to make any arrests in the case.
All that remains is a mental scar: “I only want to stay in my room, I no longer feel secure to leave the house and sometimes I no longer trust Germans,” he says.
All he does know is that, having escaped the war in his own country only to be attacked in his adopted home, Germany has become less of a safe haven.