How a German group keeps youths from becoming jihadis

The Hayat program, building on expertise in dealing with neo-Nazis, works with parents to prevent young people from joining radical groups. 

The calls for help sometimes come in at 3 a.m. Someone is always there to receive them, including often Daniel Koehler, a soft-spoken, Princeton-educated counselor, who on this day is dressed in a Batman sweat shirt with, appropriately, a black hood.

He works out of offices in central Berlin for the Hayat program, an initiative to try to prevent young Europeans from fleeing to Syria to become jihadis. Across Europe, both governments and private groups are setting up deradicalization programs in an effort to address what has become one of the Continent’s most pressing security concerns. Hayat’s is considered one of the best.

The initiative is an outgrowth of Germany’s renowned EXIT program, which was set up to deradicalize neo-Nazis. Established in 2011, Hayat, which means “life” in Turkish and Arabic, is a government-funded nongovernmental organization with counselors who cooperate with security officials when it’s necessary and lawful.

The group helped avert a domestic terrorism attack in 2013, thanks to the mother of one youth who had contacted Hayat and received help. But for the most part, Hayat focuses on family counseling, working to build community bonds as its principal tactic. It’s a passive approach – Hayat only works with families who’ve reached out to the group. 

It often takes tireless work to gain the trust of family members. Mr. Koehler has worked with one family for a year and a half and still doesn’t know their real names. In many cases, he says, families feel shame or fear that, in trying to stop their loved ones from taking a radical turn, they could get them in trouble with authorities. 

When a call comes in, one of three case workers will assess whether it represents a normal conversion to Islam or a “dangerous” case. When it’s the latter, they try to explore all possible motivations in the individual’s life to find positive alternatives. In one case, a man was frustrated because he wasn’t able to pray at his workplace. Hayat reached out to the company, which accommodated the man’s needs. 

If a man says he wants to go to Syria to fight injustice, they’ll work with his family to convince him that he’s better off establishing a charity in Germany. Koehler urges families not to condemn or judge, because with every broken emotional bond, it’s more likely a young man or woman will leave home.

“We want families to become living, positive counternarratives,” he says.

So far, the program has taken on 85 cases. It has successfully helped families steer 20 individuals from going to Syria, and many others from considering it. The staff has also been successful in luring three individuals back from Syria, though it’s much harder to sway young people once they’re gone.

Other countries are now seeking Hayat’s help. The group will be starting a program in London in a few weeks, and plans to set up another one in the Netherlands this fall.

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