A Year after “The Cologne Attacks”: How Small Community Initiatives in Europe Are Countering Right-wing Populism

The one-year anniversary of the “Cologne attacks” on some 1,200 women on New Year’s Eve is a difficult one for many Germans. Prior to the attacks, since the summer of 2015, Germany demonstrated remarkable leadership – unlike many other European countries – by providing refuge to a million people fleeing war in places like Syria, where nearly half the population fled their homes. Last year’s attacks, most of which took place in the Cologne train station and included sexual assault, rape and robbery, were a tipping and turning point for many Germans.


Refugees Welcome. Street graffiti in Berlin. Photo by Kim Rygiel

Once the scope and nature of attacks against women in Cologne and elsewhere became public, right-wing groups were quick to label the perpetrators as ‘foreign’ or ‘Arab or North African’ men, further stoking a politicized and racialized debate about Germany’s welcoming of refugees. Yet, as some German women who were at the Cologne train station pointed out, this is not a “foreign” problem. All women experience forms of violence on a daily basis. However, the reality of systemic violence against women became quickly sidelined by a public debate focusing on unwanted refugees and Muslim men’s perceived aggression towards women. The far-right organization PEGIDA (the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West [Occident]) swiftly mobilized to take advantage of the moment to make the case that living with others who have different cultural values and backgrounds is undesirable, or that Europe can only become prosperous again by returning to its “mythically pure” past–one based on an imagined notion of homogenous European identity. Organizations like PEGIDA used the “Cologne attacks” to incite Germans and other Europeans to question whether Europe should be open to newcomers.


Mobilizing fear: “Their world is crumbling. Ours is building.”

Anti-foreigner sentiment in Germany is part of a larger phenomenon of the growing power of far-right and populist parties in Europe including the Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National in France, the Fidezs Party in Hungary and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Cultural purity, nativism, and a refusal to accept the fact that living with cultural differences is a part of every-day life is common to all these parties. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been an outspoken critic against refugees, leading the way in consolidating an anti-migrant “Eastern Bloc” with countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Xenophobic and racist attacks are simultaneously on the rise across Europe. After the Brexit vote, violence against migrants and other minorities increased significantly within the UK, while PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany galvanized hostility towards refugees into visible movements. Denmark passed legislation allowing the state to confiscate refugees’ valuables.

Newcomers are the Opposite of Strangers. A poster on a street in Berlin. Photo by Kim Rygiel

Newcomers are the Opposite of Strangers. A poster on a street in Berlin. Photo by Kim Rygiel

The growth of the far right in Europe is mirrored by Trump’s victory in the November US elections, a seeming win for xenophobia, misogyny and racism given the new president-to-be’s stated policies of building walls and banning Muslims as well as his numerous vulgarities towards women, persons with disabilities, and Latinos. As in Europe, Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” calls for a return to a previous period of a white imperial America. It should be no surprise then that Europe’s xenophobic parties enthusiastically celebrated his victory. Florian Philippot, deputy leader of France’s National Front, tweeted after Trump’s victory: “Their world is crumbling. Ours is building.” The vision celebrated by the National Front and other nationalist parties in Europe is a world of closed borders and hostility towards immigrants, women, and cultural, religious, and sexual minorities. It is a world fearful of the Other – a world of old hierarchies rebuilt and of hard-won rights reversed.

However, such xenophobia does not account for the full picture of what is taking place in Europe. As part of its 2016 Refugees Welcome Index, Amnesty International found that of the 27,000 people surveyed across 27 countries, 80% would welcome refugees into their countries and even into their homes. Germany ranked as the second most welcoming country on the list. This finding is in stark contrast to media and government claims that European populations overwhelmingly fear newcomers and it is at odds with government policy responses to close their borders to them.

A strong undercurrent welcoming newcomers exists across Europe. A plethora of strong community-based initiatives throughout Europe demonstrate a desire to resist xenophobia and the fear of newcomers. We observed initiatives in Germany, Italy and Turkey to illustrate various approaches communities are taking to living together with cultural diversity. We found that opening communities to others is not something that occurs on its own, but is a process that needs to be actively fostered through policies, programs and experiences that allow people to get to know one another. To foster pluralism in this political climate, it is necessary to enact initiatives that actively resist cultural purity and find ways to welcome newcomers.

Beyond the State – Citizens and Refugees Reclaiming Space:

Über Den Tellerand’s Kitchen. A cooking class underway. Photo by Feyzi Baban

Über Den Tellerand’s Kitchen. A cooking class underway. Photo by Feyzi Baban

In Germany, citizens’ initiatives that welcome refugees into their communities range from flat sharing projects to cafés providing employment to newcomers. For example, the online accommodation-sharing platform founded by Refugees Welcome connects Germans who have available space in their home with refugees looking for a place to live. Another example is Über Den Tellerand, a non-profit kitchen project where refugees and ordinary Berliners cook together, share a meal and interact with one another. Set up in a chic district of Berlin, Über Den Tellerand is a welcoming space with an open kitchen and communal table in the middle of the room, all the furniture hand-built by those involved in the project. As the founder, Rafael Strasser explains, they are trying to create “a platform where refugees and ordinary people come together in a relaxed environment, cook and share food and socialize as friends do, and more importantly establish friendships as equals.” It offers a monthly cooking class taught by a German and a newcomer who serve as guest chefs. Every month 12-15 people gather with one another to learn how to cook, and after the cooking lesson, share the meal together. The kitchen thus becomes a “hub” where Germans and newcomers meet one another with the hope that new relationships can develop. These cooking classes have often led to new activities like yoga, basketball and soccer being organized in the community by those involved.

The project specifically targets people who may not already be politicized one way or another. Strasser explains that his own desire to start the kitchen project was motivated by watching scenes of the Syrian refugee crisis unfold on television and feeling helpless: “I had this desire to do something that achieves some kind of change no matter how small. People on the left are already on board and understand this issue and we will never reach people on the right. We have a large group of people in Germany who are in the middle and are open to engage with this issue. They can go either direction. I want to reach out to them.”

The Tale of Two Villages

Villaggio Globale. Artwork in Riace. Photo by Feyzi Baban

Villaggio Globale. Artwork in Riace. Photo by Feyzi Baban

In Italy, in the small village of Riace on the coast of the southernmost part of Calabria, locals boast that some 500 of its 1,800 residents are refugees. Amidst reports of violence against foreigners in nearby towns, in Riace, the presence of refugees has saved the life of the village in very real ways. Riace and neighboring villages were facing depopulation, decline and decay. Under Mayor Domenico Lucano’s leadership, the village welcomed refugee families and worked towards integrating them into the life of Riace. Now, the village is revitalized with new roads running to the central square in town, a space now full of life with locals and newcomers congregating in the evenings.

According to local resident, Bayram Acar, a Kurdish refugee who came to the village in 1998 and has lived in Riace ever since, many of the local Italian residents were initially sceptical about the newcomers. But the mayor directly addressed their fears through pragmatic and financial policies. For example, he made sure that the funds allocated for employment projects for refugees also included the hiring of local Italian residents. He thus pre-empted the appearance of competition and the seeds of resentment.

Locals can see the rejuvenation of their village in the new roads, young families, active street life, and the media and tourist attention that the town has received as a result while their neighbors across the hill are living in towns moving in an opposite direction. Mayor Lucano summarized his vision to a group of us taking a tour of the town with the following words: “Riace is a contradiction: a small village but of the world…a ‘villaggio globale” or a global village.” The revitalization of Riace took risk, work and proactive steps by the mayor and his citizens

Kirkayak’s Kitchen Project. Syrian and Turkish Women share a meal together. Photo by Kemal Vural Tarlan. Reproduced with permission.

Kirkayak’s Kitchen Project. Syrian and Turkish Women share a meal together. Photo by Kemal Vural Tarlan. Reproduced with permission.

Here We Learn to Live Together

In Gaziantep, a city near Turkey’s Syrian border, a cultural center called Kirkayak founded and funded by eight private citizens extended its reach to Syrian refugees. Gaziantep has two million residents, including nearly half a million of Syrian refugees who have no official status in Turkey other than an arbitrarily defined “temporary protection” status. Many live in extremely precarious conditions. Kemal Vural Tarlan, one of Kirkayak’s founders who oversees day-to-day operations, explains that Syrians in Turkey are reminded everyday that they are outsiders and do not belong.

In 2011, Kirkayak opened its doors to Syrians who had started to arrive in Gaziantep. The center exhibited the works of several Syrian artists, encouraging them to use the center for social and cultural events, and organized a kitchen project that brought Turkish and Syrian women together. A quick walk around Kirkayak presents a sharp contrast with the outside world where Syrians live on the margins, segregated from the Turkish residents of Gaziantep. Kirkayak consciously creates and nurtures an alternative: an “open space” where everybody belongs and where people freely come, participate and contribute as equals and as members of community.

In an environment where many Syrian refugees experience discrimination and hardship, Kirkayak becomes a space where they can reclaim their dignity, cease to be just refugees, and return to working as artists, writers and community organizers as they were doing before the war. Tarlan summarizes their philosophy as follows: “Here we learn to live together. It is not just Syrians who are becoming part of the community, but with them we also learn that we need to change.”

Citizens Forging Alternatives to Xenophobia

An Artisanal Workshop in Riace. Photo by Feyzi Baban

An Artisanal Workshop in Riace. Photo by Feyzi Baban

While it is true that many states are engaged in a dangerous game of courting, cultivating or kowtowing to populism, many citizens are doing the work of creating alternatives. The question we need to ask is this: Why do some people and communities express discomfort and hostility towards others of different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds while others show openness and solidarity with newcomers such as refugees? Why does the small Calabrese town of Riace open its arms to refugees and newcomers, while a town only twenty minutes away with a very similar socio-economic background exhibits hostility and violence towards refugees and migrants? Visible, well-organized and loud right-wing parties and movements have been successful in exploiting fears about economic insecurities and newcomers. However, there are also many groups and individuals cultivating solidarity between locals and newcomers by creating tangible alternatives and urging governments to implement policies that facilitate the conditions of living together.

The cumulative impact of community-based initiatives like these is that they can create open spaces in which being an insider or an outsider, a citizen or a non-citizen, becomes less important. Instead, locals and newcomers interact as part of the same community and learn from their experiences.

There is nothing inherently easy or difficult about living with others who are different. Though “difference” is not always progressive, pluralism begins in the messiness of living together and needs to be actively fostered from the ground level through initiatives like those we have described in Germany, Italy and Turkey. When matched with policies and programs like those developed by the Mayor of Riace, they can provide an antidote to populist movements like PEGIDA which–in the absence of real knowledge–took advantage of fears raised by the “Cologne attacks” to mobilize xenophobia.

Many citizens all over Europe recognize this. If only governments did the same.

Feyzi Baban is Associate Professor in the Departments of International Development Studies and Political Studies at Trent University, Peterborough Canada. Find him on Twitter @feyzibaban.

Kim Rygiel is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and faculty member at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada. Find her on Twitter @kimrygiel.

They are working on a project supported by the Canadian government’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada: “Living with others: Fostering cultural pluralism through citizenship politics”. This project examines community initiatives across several European countries that foster living with cultural plurality and investigates why some communities, rather than acting in reactionary ways, open their doors to newcomers instead.  For more information contact: fbaban@trentu.ca or krygiel@wlu.ca and see related publication: Baban, F. and K. Rygiel (2014)  “Snapshots from the margins: Transgressive cosmopolitanisms in  Europe.” European Journal of Social Theory. 17 (4): 461-478.

A Year after “The Cologne Attacks”: How Small Community Initiatives in Europe Are Countering Right-wing Populism

By Feyzi Baban and Kim Rygiel