Extremely Together’s Young Leader from Germany, and co-founder of 180° Wende, a Cologne-based organisation engaging with young people affected by extremism.
There is an anecdote which a colleague of mine used to tell me. It is about a criminal on death row and an imam. The two happened to meet each other at the gallows for the first time. The imam raised his hands and started praying for the criminal who nodded gratefully, with a hopeless expression on his face. But the imam fell on his knees and declined his gratitude with a clear “No! This is not right! I apologize for not having been there for you before!”
That is, he wished he could have saved the criminal even before he committed a crime and he had a chance to be saved. You might be wondering why I am telling you this. It perfectly demonstrates what our work is built on: Anticipating problems and being there to solve them as early as possible. Our most important principle when it comes to countering hatred and violence: “We have to be first!” That means prevention and proactive intervention at the right time.
And we have to address the root causes of the problem. “All perpetrators were once victims”. I learned this essential truth from a former chairman of juvenile court judges. He is now one of our biggest supporters. His statement has always been confirmed. No matter if in prison, on the streets, or in our counselling center: Regardless of their bullying nature, most radicalized young people were once victims, especially victims of manipulation. From one day to another, the friendly neighbor’s son is brainwashed into being an antisocial public enemy full of hatred and bigotry. That fact we have to keep in mind.
The feeling of having missed an opportunity to save some young people affected me deeply. Foreign fighters who left for the Middle East to kill innocent people were the final straw. I was greatly concerned with helping those youngsters, especially those who were only followers. We knew from the very beginning that recognition and appreciation from society are key to protecting young people who are vulnerable to extremist ideas. That is why we started giving them opportunities to thrive and to help them. And we kept on fighting extremism with a clear stance, hindering new recruitments.
What we really need are civic approaches with a clear stance coming from the affected community.
Not everyone supported us in this fight. Unfortunately, there is always a breeding ground for young people who are susceptible to radicalization which is furthered by certain extremist-friendly environmental factors. For that reason, activating the community in order to spur them into action is the only way to fight the aforementioned problem. Sadly the voices wanting more security measures have always been the loudest after terror attacks. There is, however, no way around civic engagement by the immediate members of the community concerned, especially when it comes to sustainable solutions to the radicalization phenomenon.
We did not know whether we would be able to reach our goals when we first started our civic engagement, but deep in our hearts we were convinced that we were on the right path and our work was needed. Fortunately, we were able to help in more than 800 cases within the first two years. Our small project “180 degrees turn” started to grow and became a successful, well-known NGO and a best-practice approach in its field. For our work, we received a lot of recognition and we have even received awards.
But the best recognition were the results we saw. I clearly remember a young man who joined one of our reorientation courses after his release from prison. He started a new life far away from the pain and violence that shaped his previous environment. He underwent training as a bus driver. After he received his bus driver’s license, he did not believe that he made it, and that he started a new life with good perspective. The only thing he said to me was: “I had no one to help me. Thank you for being there for me. I will pray for you.” I was just glad that I did not have to pray for him (at the gallows).