Humor and YouTube break down social barriers

One of Germany's biggest YouTube stars shows Syrians and Germans have more in common than they think.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Shara Tibken
Katie Collins
3 min read

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

Firas Alshater stood blindfolded, arms outstretched, in a crowded Berlin square. A handwritten sign was placed next to his feet: "I am a Syrian refugee. I trust you. Do you trust me? Hug me!"

An hour passed -- nothing. Finally one person walked up to the blindfolded Alshater and hugged him. Then another and another ... all captured on video and posted to his new YouTube channel, Zukar (German for sugar).

"I put it up at night and went to sleep, and the next day I had 999+ notifications on Facebook and more than 600 or 700 people added me on Facebook," Alshater tells us. "The video hit more than 100,000 views in less than 24 hours."

That video, titled "Who are those Germans," has since been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube and Facebook combined. It also started Alshater, 25, on his path to becoming a YouTube celebrity. He now has two YouTube channels, 30 videos and international acclaim for using humor to overcome distrust. This past June, Time named him one of its Next Generation Leaders, calling him "the Clown Prince of Migrants."

Watch this: Humor and hugs turn a Syrian refugee into a YouTube star

It's a far cry from Alshater's life five years ago in Damascus, when Syria's civil war first broke out. Among the first to protest against President Bashar al-Assad's repressive regime, he shot images of devastation and wasn't shy about using Facebook to express his opinions. That got him nine months in prison, from late 2011 to 2012. He traveled to Germany in 2013 after filmmaker Jan Heilig invited Alshater to work with him on a project. They now co-produce the Zukar videos.

"If YouTube and Facebook didn't exist, maybe I would not be here in Germany," Alshater says. "If [they] didn't exist, I don't think I'd get a chance to talk to people."

Alshater has lived in Berlin since May 2013, nearly two years before the dramatic influx of refugees from the war zones of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. No country in Europe has accepted as many migrants, according to the UN. Last year alone, nearly 1.1 million people registered for asylum here, Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in January.

The flood of (mostly Muslim) newcomers, along with news of violent crimes -- like the mass sexual assaults in Cologne last New Year's Eve -- is generating a growing a backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open door policy." Last month, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party ousted Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party from power in Berlin.

Berlin hipster humor

With his shaved head, handlebar mustache and beard, Alshater has the Berliner hipster vibe down to a T. That vibe -- combined with a quirky humor -- has a way of putting bigotry in a ridiculous light.

Earlier this year, for example, he saw news clips of extremists attacking a busload of refugees. That inspired a skit of black-clad neo-Nazis learning to overcome their fear of refugees by touching a doe-eyed baby.


YouTube star Firas Alshater (second from right) met with CNET reporters (from left) Andrew Hoyle, Katie Collins and Shara Tibken in the Berlin office where he films his videos.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"We liked to know: How did it feel to touch a real refugee?" the interviewer asks one. "It wasn't that bad," she says. "I imagined it being more intense."

His videos are winning fans and maybe even turning opinion.

"With people like you guys, that fight for reason, common sense and equality, we might still have a chance to save our species from total extinction," Mihai Smeu-Mare wrote on Alshater's YouTube page.

And while a Facebook page for Nazis who like cats is already ridiculous, it inspired his video, "I don't have a problem with cats."

"I don't have a problem with cats. BUT they are taking my job away!," he deadpans while looking straight into the camera. "They get much more clicks on YouTube than I do! ... I don't have a problem with cats," he continues, "BUT they are granted asylum everywhere!"

We next see Alshater knocking on a door while wearing cat ears. The camera pans back to show "CATS ONLY!" taped to the window.

"If they love cats, what do they have against refugees?" he asks us.

"We are not allowed to hate somebody just because he's coming from another country."