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Shoan Vaisi smiling and looking confident
Shoan Vaisi, an Iranian refugee, is running for the BundestagImage: Dominik Asbach

Iranian refugee wants a seat in the Bundestag

Ralf Bosen
September 20, 2021

He fled Iran a decade ago. Now Shoan Vaisi is standing for Germany's parliament. The Left Party candidate and former professional wrestler has a political mission.


Images of desperate people, panicked and fearful, risking their lives to flee the extremist Taliban —the tragedy in Afghanistan stirs up memories for Shoan Vaisi. "I know this from my own history. How it is to have to flee from death. When you are so desperate that you try to escape at any cost," Vaisi told DW.

In 2011, he had to flee Iran. As a member of a left-wing organization, he had organized demonstrations and readings of banned books, campaigned for equal rights between women and men, and spoke out about the oppression of the Kurdish minority. In doing so, Vaisi, who is a Kurd himself, drew the wrath of the Iranian authorities. He was threatened with imprisonment or torture, at the very least. He had no choice but to flee his home city of Sanandaj, near the border with Iraq. For five months he struggled to make his way to Germany, via Turkey and Greece.

Germany's stronghold of non-voters

He found safety here, but it took a long time for him for the emigrant to feel that he had truly arrived. He did not speak German, his Iranian qualification for university entrance was not recognized and a job seemed a long way off. Vaisi had to start again from nothing. He took evening classes, studied for German qualifications and looked for work.

As a former professional wrestler who made it on the Iranian national team, Vaisi brought enough perseverance and discipline to overcome all obstacles. Today, 10 years later, he sees himself as having "arrived." He's at home in the city of Essen, in the former industrial Rhur area of North Rhine-Westphalia. "I totally feel like an Essener," he says with a laugh, in fluent German.

Vaisi is currently studying social work and is employed as a social worker, translator and interpreter for Kurdish and Persian languages. He has been a German citizen since 2017. He and his wife, whom he met in Germany, have a daughter. He is still competitive in sport — fighting for his local wrestling club in the second-tier federal league. Vaisi is considered by many to be a prime example of successful integration.

Now Vaisi has focused on his next goal: he wants to enter the Bundestag for the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the socialist Left Party. If he succeeds, he would be the first former politically persecuted person to win a seat in Germany's federal parliament. "In the year 2021, it is more necessary than ever for a diverse society that people from underprivileged groups are represented in the Bundestag," he says. 

Trying to make German politics more diverse

As a politician he wants to combat poverty and inequality and provide better prospects for children and young people, who often also have a migration history.

Above all, he believes the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing social imbalances.

Another important concern of his is a more humane migration policy. Earlier in his life he had focused on internal problems in Iran. "But when I fled, other points were added: the global inequality that leads to people fleeing, how they are treated, but also the arrival in Germany, how people integrate and the discussion about it— those were the original reasons why I started to get involved in politics again in Germany."

Hate, incitement from right-wing extremists

Vaisi decided to run for the Bundestag shortly after Tareq Alaows withdrew his candidacy. Alaows, a former law student who fled Syria six years ago, had wanted to enter parliament as a member of the Green Party. In March, the 32-year-old ended his bid because of threats against him and those close to him, as well as experiences of racism.

"I was shocked by that. My candidacy is an answer to his withdrawal," says Vaisi.

Syrian refugee to become MP?

Vaisi is disappointed that Alaows did not experience more support. "I wish there was more of an outcry. That is simply unacceptable!," he says. "In 2021, a refugee in Germany was threatened and pushed back from political life. I have the impression that this has just been accepted. Sure, there were a few tweets expressing regret, that it was sad. But what does that count for?"

In any case, Vaisi does not want to be intimidated by hatred. He won't give the agitators that pleasure. Since standing as a candidate he has experienced inhuman comments via social media. In the meantime, however, he has been able to deal with it in such a way that it has not dampened his resolve.

On Twitter he wrote: "The threats against Alaows have shown how alarming the idea of a refugee sitting in the Bundestag is for the racists in Germany. I would like to make their nightmare a reality."

Vaisi also receives plenty of support. Many people, including supporters of the rival conservative Christian Democrat or neoliberal Free Democrat parties, write urging him to continue and to remain strong. "In addition, people who, like me, came to Germany as refugees, write to tell me that they want to get into politics because of me. That is part of what I wanted to achieve. My candidacy has helped get the ball rolling."

This article has been translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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