A few miles from the Syrian border in Lebanon, the Beqaa valley is lined with olive groves, vineyards and pomegranate trees. Amid the orchards lie large encampments of white canvas. Up close, these are the homes of tens of thousands of Syrians waiting to restart their lives, somehow and somewhere. The picturesque surroundings stand in stark contradiction to their tattered tents and desperate lives.
Unsurprisingly, the news of the arrival of two Germans last May aroused much curiosity among the resident refugees. It is hard to overstate the positive image Germany has held in the mind of Syrians in recent years: admiration for German efficiency, prosperity and welfare systems is combined with awareness of its generosity towards the displaced, symbolised by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admission of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing across Europe three years ago.
The two Germans were carrying video cameras and filming the camp – even if they themselves seemed to be featuring in most of their shots. The Syrians observed them inquisitively and, when asked, co-operated with them. They may not have expected immediate salvation, but at least there are local customs of hospitality and etiquette to observe.
“It is Arab culture to welcome guests and they seemed harmless,” Torfa Abd-al Nayef, one of the refugees, told me.
Now, months later, she says she feels betrayed. For while the Germans’ organisation was ostensibly offering “Hilfe for Ort” – aid on the spot – she says they never quite revealed their true identity or their broader purpose.
In fact, the pair, whose names are Nils Altmieks and Sven Engeser, represent a group called the Alternative Association for Help, or AHA!. It sees itself as part of an alt-right European identitarian movement, dedicated to preserving European “identity” in the face of immigration, and particularly Muslim immigration.
The two men procured a meagre budget of $1,000 to be given towards the rent of ten tents, at $100 each. So far they have paid for three months of rent only. But under the cover of charity, and with the help of their video cameras, they have created a convenient narrative. Their final video boasts about the benefits of delivering aid on the ground, but glosses over the real stories of those fleeing atrocities. AHA!’s local partner, Nadia Rdeini also tried to point out to the Germans those who did not or could not return to Syria, but they were focused on the those who did. The sum they were offering was intended to demonstrate the argument that the best way to keep refugees out of Europe is to pay them to stay in Lebanon. “They didn’t tell us they were here to stop Muslims or Syrians from going to Europe, never,” Torfa told me, seemingly finding the idea hard to believe.
The Lebanese trip was part of a strategy by identitarians to use attention grabbing “stunts” to shock and thereby spread awareness of its cause. In 2015, members of AHA! climbed the Brandenburg gate in Berlin to oppose Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy and in 2016 the Identitarian Movement of Austria hung a banner that read “Islamisation Totet” or “Islamisation Kills” outside the office of Austria’s Green party.
One prominent identitarian leader, Martin Sellner, posted a video blog after the latter incident and said that any opposition to them was a conspiracy by the leftist media. Oddly, for a group that believes that European culture is disappearing under a morass of Islamism, he accused the press of fear-mongering over its ideology. He also appealed to like minds in the UK and across the Atlantic. In broken English, he says in the video: “After Brexit, after Trump, we see we all have the same fate, same problems. [In] The EU, the US and Canada, there is an awakening of a consciousness, of the whole family of people of cultures, who are facing their extinction, and the death of democracy, the tradition of the culture by mass emigration and Islamisation.”
In Lebanon, the rhetoric comes face to face with the reality. One principal tactic is to portray all Muslims as Islamists and, possibly, jihadists, who want to alter Europe’s values and eventually take it over. This does not, to say the least, involve much engagement with the subjects themselves.
Take Torfa, who was one of those chosen to receive rent for her tent. While we speak, her 17-year-old son Saleh lies listlessly on the concrete floor. He was 12 when Isis took over their village in Aleppo province and decided that he, along with all the other children, should give up standard school and instead study the Quran, and the Quran only. Somehow the family managed to escape to Lebanon. But ever since Saleh has been traumatised by his experience. His mother says he is unable to pick up a pencil.
Torfa blames Isis’s ideology for ruining the future of her children. “My family were the first victims of Isis’s jihad,” she says. But for the Germans who visited them, she and her children are only Muslims, people they perceive as dangerous to the survival of Europe.
Torfa’s husband was one of many men abducted by Isis who never returned. She believes he is dead. “None of the men they kidnapped have come back,” she said. “They killed all the men.”
To raise her family, Torfa works from seven in the morning until eight at night for $10 a day as a manual labourer in a farm in the Beqaa. She was, she says, “relieved”, when the Germans decided to pay her the money for the rent. Now she feels humiliated. “I feel like we the Syrians are a disease and they in Europe are running away from us,” she said.
When I contacted him, Sven Engeser of AHA! insisted that the families were informed of the views of the group when they received the money. However, he reiterated the group’s belief that it is necessary to stop Syrians from coming to Europe because they are Islamising it. He cited common right-wing arguments – that the falling birth rate in Germany and the increasing numbers of immigrants will see Muslims “overtaking” Christians and changing Europe’s character. ”We want to protect our ethnic and cultural identity” he wrote to me.
Till Küster, the Syria and Lebanon coordinator of a more conventional German aid group, Medico international, told me AHA!’s aim was merely to use its presence in Lebanon to gain credibility in Germany.
“AHA´s message is special because they use the same vocabulary as conservative politicians,” he said. “The video they made is done in a professional way, so viewers might find it convincing, not knowing who is behind AHA! and that their political background is anti-democratic, xenophobic and racist.”
The identitarian movement rejects labels such as “right wing”, stressing the “alternative” part of alt-right. Projects like their work with Syrian refugees supposedly give a more humane edge to their ideology, in the hope of broadening its appeal beyond even the rapidly mainstreamed Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).
Torfa has no idea about German politics, and she says she doesn’t even want to go to Europe. Neither do the nine other families receiving AHA!’s aid, despite their living conditions.
“My country is at war,” she says. “If it wasn’t I wouldn’t have even come to Lebanon.”