Mimoun Berrissoun is only 29-years-old, but he is already the leader of one of the most important organisations in Germany that is trying to stop a wave of teenagers and young adults from becoming radicalised.
Berrissoun, the co-founder of 180° Wende, spoke to Business Insider and told us about how he turned his Cologne-based organisation from a small volunteer project, into a potentially society changing group that the government uses to engage with young people affected by extremism.
He is also one of the 10 people involved in Extremely Together, an initiative launched by the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World aimed at countering violent extremism within communities.
Business Insider’s Lianna Brinded: Tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to get involved with this cause.
Mimoun Berrissoun: I was born in Germany and I studied social sciences in Germany too. I come from Moroccan parents that emigrated in the 1960s to the country, and because I grew up with two backgrounds, I know different cultures and have the experience as someone who has a foreign background but also in a Western society.
In 2011/2012, I saw there were lots of young Germans leaving the country to join foreign fighting groups or young people taking up the criminal path. There were a lack of solutions to tackle this problem, so I invited a large group of people like myself from university to discuss what we could do.
LB: How are you funded?
MB: Funding is the most difficult problem. When we started we were all voluntary and we had the contacts already to start our work. However we had to become an official organisation in order to get organised and access to certain areas, such as working with young people in prisons, which led to the official establishment of 180° Wende.
Right now we get a mix of institutional funding and as part of a German federal programme for Germany’s [government department] Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth . We still have a large voluntary network.
Every year we apply for funding and sponsorships and so on. It’s an important part of the work.
LB: You say you’ve grown up with similar experiences or in an environment as many of these young people, so what examples have you seen that prompted you to take action?
MB: There was a man me and my friends knew from Yemen but lived in Germany, and although he wasn’t a convicted criminal, he was living in a bad environment and was surrounded by problematic people. Because of his situation, he became religious and got in contact with extremist groups. Those people told him it was forbidden to stay here in Germany — a “country of non-believers.”
He left to go fighting for this group and we learned that one year later he died there. He died doing military action for a group because he felt he belonged there [Berrisoun did not say what the group he mentioned is].
This is the problem. Young people are leaving the country to go to war for an ideology of a group that makes them feel like they belong. They make them want to be a part of that ideology by promising them paradise if they die for their causes. This is the whole phenomenon.
This is why so many young people from foreign backgrounds, and sometimes with criminal backgrounds, leave Germany to join these groups.
LB: So tell me about the organisation and how you try to tackle the radicalisation of young people?
MB: I chose the name 180° Wende (which means 180 degree turn) because I want to help reach these young people and completely turn their lives around.
When 180° Wende was first established in 2011/2012, parents would ask how they could get help for their children. At 180° Wende, we have coaches that look after target groups. Although we call them coaches, they are more like trainers.
For example, if one of the coaches comes from an Afghan background, they will be integral in liaising with people within that community. They often live in an area that is predominantly Afghan in Germany. They will visit and understand the districts, speak the language, have a similar life to people living there, and therefore are able to detect any signals of radicalisation and criminality.
Each coach, and 180° Wende, overall partners with the city, the police, human rights groups, and drug prevention groups as well to help young people know that you can have a second chance and there are opportunities out there for them.
So far we’ve reached 800 young people.
LB: So what other services do you provide for young people within these communities?
MB: We try to show young people that they can reintegrate into society, have second chances, and have the power to overturn their situation.
Many of these people from mixed foreign backgrounds encounter discrimination and alienation and this is why it is normal for them to turn towards religion and then become vulnerable to radicalisation.
We have already won several prizes for our work and we have a mobile counselling team in Bonn, Germany. We have special initiatives around prisons and schools and we will even help with helping with CVs or helping them rearrange their lives to find opportunities for work.
LB: Germany is in a unique situation right now. According to United Nations data, Germany has had one million refugees come to Germany in just one year alone. Considering those from mixed backgrounds that are born in Germany are turning to these forms of radicalisation due to alienation and discrimination, as you described, are you worried that the country could potentially face a crisis with the new influx of people?
MB: I think one of the main causes for radicalisation is lack of orientation in life and there are always going to be people to [take advantage] of that vacuum. Everyone wants to be respected and if we are a successful society, we give everyone a place within society.
Extremist groups give these people a fix, a feeling of belonging. I have met so many young people that were discriminated against and not given a single shot at making it in society. Their reaction is to hate that society and give in to those groups who call then “brother” and being part of a global family.
Since the 1960s and 1970s, I believe people and institutions will learn from mistakes of the past. We just got to show them consideration and help them integrate.
The refugees I have met from all countries are motivated to do something when they come over. They are grateful and hopeful for a future.
We also work with official institutions and other organisations, like teachers and the police, to help them understand the youth and train them to cope with situations where they see signs of radicalisation or even how to prevent discrimination that could lead to this situation.