Welcome to Syrian Berlin: A refugee tour of the city
Six sets of Syrians living in six different districts of the German capital explain what being a Berliner means to them.
Berlin, Germany – Berlin is a kaleidoscope of identities, a colourful blend of cultures and styles. It is an eclectic mix to which the latest wave of Syrian refugees have added their own customs and hopes for the future.
But the city to which they have arrived – escaping their tumultuous present – has been shaped by its own tumultuous past.
In the 20th century, the German capital barely survived two World Wars – at the end of the second it lay mostly in ruins.
The victorious American, Soviet, British and French forces carved the city into four sectors, each rebuilding their zone to their own tastes.
Berlin was then further divided into East and West, straddling two countries for more than 40 years.
So, given Berlin’s diversity and complexity, how does a recently established community make its mark on the city?
We follow the stories of eight Syrians creating their own version of Berlin.
Monis Bukhari, Kreuzberg, Berlin – ‘You can be whoever you want to be here’
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, gentrification has changed the face of the city.
Kreuzberg typifies this transformation. The former working-class neighbourhood has become a bastion of bourgeois hipster culture with fashionable burger joints and alternative nightclubs appealing to the young urbanites able to afford the rising rents here.
Monis Bukhari navigates the streets of Berlin like a native. He has his favourite spots, such as Prachtwerk, an artistic cafe that doubles as a workspace for Berlin’s army of freelancers.
The 38-year-old journalist and entrepreneur has been in the city since September 2013, but never imagined that he would end up living here permanently.
The Syrian had spent two years in Jordan’s capital, Amman, after fleeing Damascus. When he was offered a temporary position in Berlin, he took it with the intention of returning to Jordan in six months.
But when he tried to re-enter the country, the Jordanian authorities refused to let him in. Monis was put on a plane back to Berlin.
“Something inside me told me that I might end up here,” he says. “My plan was to keep the apartment [in Berlin] for two weeks more so if something went wrong, I had a place to go.”
Berlin’s dimmed colours and wide spaces appeal to Monis’ aesthetic tastes. But it’s the city’s vibrant art scene, bohemian nature and mixed multicultural boroughs that make it unique in his eyes.
“I like everything about Berlin. There are no rules. You can be whoever you want to be here,” he says.
“Berlin changed my life a lot. My personality didn’t change, but I had to hide myself or fake my thoughts [in Damascus].
“I used to see myself as a stranger and weird there. Many people used to also see me like this because I didn’t follow the majority.”
Monis believes the increasing number of Syrians has affected Berlin by raising the profile of their homeland and the ongoing conflict among Germans. When he arrived, most Berliners couldn’t find Syria on a map, he says.
“I still remember when one of the Berliners asked me where I was from,” he laughs. “I told him, ‘Damascus’ and he said, ‘Israel!’ Then, I had to explain that we are next to Israel, but not inside it.”
Since founding the Syrian Home in Germany Facebook group, Monis plays a prominent role in the local Syrian community.
He describes the Syrian presence as omnipresent, especially culturally. Much of the country’s artistic elite moved to Berlin, bringing Syria’s music and art to a broader audience.
“Everywhere you go now in Berlin you will find Syrians. They aren’t representing themselves as refugees. They are part of the scene.”
Along with the Facebook group and several other projects, Monis has also founded the Integration Hub, a social initiative-turned-springboard for newcomers on the German labour market that provides classes, support and a workspace for refugees from all backgrounds.
For Monis, this initiative is key to establishing the new Syrian Berlin he dreams of.
“I wish to find a Syrian cultural centre where all the Syrians can express themselves through their art,” he says.
“I also wish to find Syrians in the high-ranking and well-paid positions here, presenting a good face of the Syrian community.
“This is the Syrian Berlin of my wishes.”
Hiba and Khaled Albassir, Zehlendorf, Berlin – ‘We fight to show the Berliners we are successful people’
Known as one of Berlin’s greener boroughs, Zehlendorf is a quiet residential area that boasts traditional timber-framed homes and former royal residences.
At a workshop for refugee entrepreneurs, Hiba Albassir tells the audience about her decision to transfer Khashabna, her family’s woodwork business, to Berlin in 2015. Her husband, Khaled Albassir, is a garden furniture designer and manufacturer who, for 19 years, ran two factories in Damascus.
“We had a lot of products left in storage because we would produce in the winter and sell in the summer,” explains 48-year-old Hiba.
“Then came the summer of 2011,” she says, referring to the start of the conflict in her country.
“We brought the products that should have been sold that summer to Berlin.”
The couple believes they made the right decision. They now own a furniture shop in Zehlendorf, on the southern tip of the city.
But their life in Berlin has been challenging and both say they fled Syria out of necessity, not choice.
“We really fight for our existence here, to show the Berliners that we are successful people, not just refugees,” Hiba explains.
“‘Refugee’ is a big word and refugees have a lot of life experience that is very valuable.”
Hiba, her husband and their two children were relocated to Berlin via a government programme in 2013.
Hiba speaks fluent German and English, after studying archaeological conservation for six years in Mainz, Germany.
“I am proud of being Syrian. I went back [to Syria] because I knew that Syria needs the experience that I gained here. Now, Syria needs us even more, which is why I want to gain more experience here and go back with this knowledge.”
Despite their challenges, the couple have built a vibrant social life in Berlin, including many of the people Hiba met during her time studying in Germany.
“That’s why we felt it’s not so horrible for us to be here because all my German friends who treat us as a part of their family who come from Syria.”
Khaled believes that the true effect of the Syrian newcomers on the city will be felt in the future, if they are able to influence a population with a lot of pride in their own culture.
“It will be a few hard years for the Syrians and the Germans who host us. We will have to work hard together because it will be good for all of us,” says the 47-year-old.
“It’s just working together and being integrated together – for the Berliners and the Syrians who are here now,” explains Hiba.
Both Hiba and Khaled aim to return to Syria when the war ends. The only consideration that could keep them here, they say, are their 13 and 16-year-old children, who have adapted quickly to life in Germany.
“If there isn’t peace in Syria soon, it means that we will stay here longer, so then the children will decide. They may spend a lot of time here and get to the point that it won’t be easy for them to return,” says Hiba.
“But, I don’t think they are the type of people who will stay here and not want to go back because we say that Syria needs us.”
AbdAlaziz Alhamza, Neukolln, Berlin – ‘You would think there is a new Syrian city here in Germany’
Neukolln is one of Berlin’s most diverse boroughs, despite the increased gentrification of the area. On the district’s edge, Sonnenallee is the artery of a thriving Arab community with shops from across the Middle East. Different dialects of Arabic can be heard spoken in the streets as Syrians, Moroccans and Palestinians dine on traditional food. Most of the signs feature both Arabic and German.
In July 2014, AbdAlaziz Alhamza arrived in Germany after fleeing for his life. The 24-year-old is one of the co-founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a website reporting about life in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) self-proclaimed capital.
As the public face of the group, AbdAlaziz gives regular media interviews. His activism has garnered him both journalistic awards and death threats from ISIL supporters.
“I never imagined that I would be in Europe or that I would be in the international media,” he says.
At first, AbdAlaziz was sent to a traditional German village, where few people spoke English and the town shut down after 8pm. The isolated location prevented him from meeting other journalists and activists, an important part of his work. So he opted to move to Berlin, where there are two airports with international flights.
“It is so easy [to live in Berlin]. I don’t speak any German so here I can speak English and do what I want in English,” he explains.
AbdAlaziz has adopted the same schedule as a Berliner and enjoys staying out late with friends. Occasionally, when he misses home, he grabs a meal at one of the new Syrian restaurants that have popped up throughout Berlin, particularly around Sonneallee.
“There are lots of Syrian restaurants on this street. We can now say there is a Syrian culture in Berlin,” he says, smiling.
While he is able to relax in Berlin despite the threat to his life, his cause is never far from his mind. He has established connections to many Syrians with whom he organises demonstrations, events and lectures to raise awareness about the situation in Syria. He has even met other journalists and activists whom he had previously worked with online but had never had the opportunity to meet.
“The Syrian community is so huge. You would think there is a new Syrian city here in Germany. There are demonstrations, protests and events. Sometimes, I feel that I am still in Syria because I am not missing anything.”
Berliners often ask AbdAlaziz what Raqqa was like before. He pines for his former life as a biochemistry student with dreams of pursuing a master’s degree at the city’s university.
“Raqqa was a forgotten city. It wasn’t rich or well known, but this city had everything,” he explains.
AbdAlaziz fell into journalism, a profession that he belongs to not out of passion, but out of an inner drive to show the real face of ISIL to the world. But, after several of his friends were assassinated, he knew it was time to leave.
“It’s like a nightmare and I don’t know when I will wake up.”
His plan is to continue his studies in Europe or the United States. But once the war is over, he dreams of returning home and ending his journalistic career. That seems unlikely, however, as the risk of retaliation may remain high, even if ISIL is defeated.
“If I could be sure that everything would be all right and that I would have a normal life without risks, I would travel tomorrow,” he says.
Anas Maawari, Mitte, Berlin – ‘This is the soul of Berlin’
Mitte, which means middle in German, is the beating heart of Berlin. Home to many of the city’s famous landmarks, it is one of the only boroughs to include parts of former East and West Berlin. Elite culture and derelict buildings collide here, conveying a genuine sense of the city’s diversity.
Not all Syrian Berliners are refugees. When Anas Maarawi arrived in August 2013, the government provided him with a residence permit on humanitarian grounds. The visa allows him to live in the country while running his business without financial support from the state.
He was smitten with Berlin from the start.
“I was impressed by the transportation system. When I tried [public transport], I thought, ‘This is why they call it the first world’,” he says.
According to Berlin Startup Map, there are an estimated 748 start-ups in Berlin. As Europe’s start-up capital, many Berliners derive their livelihoods from the thriving tech industry. It is also a city of freelancers – journalists, artists, graphic designers, musicians – who have helped to shape the city’s bohemian reputation.
As the owner of a tech blog, Anas says he hasn’t encountered any difficulties adapting, apart from the language.
“I actually felt at home from day one because there’s a very strong start-up culture scene here,” he says. “From the first month, I started attending meet-ups and met people from different countries in the tech business.”
The Damascus native is the founder of Ardroid, an Arabic-language blog about Android phones and computers. The start-up has flourished since Anas arrived in Berlin.
“It is easier to live here. As a tech geek, when I need to buy something, I can find everything. I can even order new devices on Amazon,” he explains.
Anas now calls Mitte his home district. He is a fan of the area’s hipster vibe and the rows of coffee shops that line the streets.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but there is something special about Mitte,” he says. “It may not be the prettiest district in Berlin, but it has a soul.”
Anas says he spent the first two years trying to develop a deeper understanding of the city, but felt frustrated about its lack of a coherent identity – unlike Paris or Amsterdam.
“I started to think of theories as to why Berlin is like that, such as maybe because it was nearly entirely destroyed by war and had to be rebuilt quickly. The buildings don’t have a style to them.
“Then I decided that maybe this is the soul of Berlin. It’s just a mix of everything.”
Anas al-Hakim, Charlottenburg, Berlin – ‘I like the German mentality’
The Charlottenburg Palace dominates the borough’s skyline, looking down upon rows of historic buildings. The area is synonymous with luxury and high fashion and is home to Berlin’s elite KaDeWe department store.
Anas Al-Hakim is one of the thousands of international students who call Berlin home. After landing a coveted spot at a preparatory programme at the Technical University of Berlin, Anas moved here in January 2015 after two years in Hannover, a northern German city. He is due to begin studying computer science and mathematics in March.
“Berlin is a big opportunity. In general, Germany has been a very big chance, but Berlin is a place that has changed my life,” he says.
Anas is one of the leaders of Living and Studying in Germany, an association that helps Arabic-speaking students transition seamlessly to life in Berlin. Many of their members are Syrian.
“The Syrian student community is very nice. I love the German culture, but sometimes you miss your own culture. My friends are really friendly and I love them very much. It is very nice to discuss in your own language sometimes.”
While Anas enjoys spending time with Syrians, his appreciation of the German way of life was a deciding factor in his decision to study here.
“I like the [German] mentality, which I prefer to the Syrian mentality. Germans are open, ordered and when they describe something, they are direct, unlike Syrians,” he says.
Traversing the city in his wheelchair, Anas finds Berlin relatively easy to navigate alone. While not all subway stops have elevators, he is able to use certain stations or take busses. Finding housing was a bit of a challenge, but he was able to find a ground-floor apartment equipped for his needs.
“I prefer everything in Berlin to Damascus. For me, Damascus wasn’t so bad, but here I can move freely with my wheelchair. It’s about the freedom of movement.”
Although he loves his adopted city and plans to establish himself here for the foreseeable future, he insists that he will always be Syrian.
“I’m not yet a Berliner. Even if I stay in Berlin for 10 years, I’m still from Damascus. I have this blood in me, which I cannot change.”
Noor Harastani and Amr Hammour, Schoneburg, Berlin – ‘We are all Berliners’
Not too far from Tempelhofer Park – hipster Berlin’s favourite summer barbecue spot – Schoneburg is home to an eclectic mix of communities. Gay-friendly bars and clubs give way to Turkish supermarkets and kebab stalls along the district’s boulevards. Surviving prewar architecture bumps up against buildings from the post-war construction boom.
Noor Harastani and her husband, Amr Hammour, have lived in Berlin for more than two years. The couple arrived as newlyweds after Noor received a scholarship to study urban design at the Technical University of Berlin. Her musician husband, a jazz guitarist from Damascus, came along under family reunification provisions for international students.
“We got married a couple weeks before we came here. We decided we wanted to build a family in a more stable country so everything was new – even the marriage thing,” says 34-year-old Amr, who is half Syrian and half Serbian.
“We didn’t know anyone here before and we felt like strangers. We had to manage everything on our own, but we had made good connections within six months,” explains 30-year-old Noor, who was an architect in Damascus.
After moving to Berlin, the pair were determined to branch out beyond the Syrian community. Noor made friends from around the world at university, while Amr networked with fellow musicians at jam sessions. He now is part of a band with his bass-playing brother, an Italian drummer and a French pianist.
“Music is very nice to meet people. It’s a really nice combination. Everybody is from a different place, but we are all Berliners,” says Amr.
“We tried really from the beginning not to be only with Syrians. We are trying to live the atmosphere of international Berlin,” adds Noor.
Amr’s music has changed since coming to Berlin. He credits the creative shift to the push for uniqueness in the music scene. The crowded market demands musicians create new rhythms as quickly as possible to remain competitive. Amr is currently recording a CD with influences from Syria, Serbia and Germany.
“I think it’s really changed the way I play. My sense of the music is different,” he says. “This market needs something that gives people goose bumps. I was searching for this for 10 years in Damascus and now I am trying to create it here in Berlin.”
Noor and Amr enjoy the freedom they now have to shape their personal identities and their relationship in their new city. In Damascus, they were expected to bow to cultural pressure to respect tradition, despite not always agreeing with old customs.
“I come from an open family, but they also respect tradition. This means I had to find a balance because I didn’t want to have a lot of conflicts with my surroundings. Here, I am freer to choose which traditions I keep or not,” says Noor.
“I like this freedom because I don’t have to think about what is expected of me, but only what I want to do. This freedom is important for me. Even if I went back to Syria, I think it would be hard for me to go back to the old version of myself. I would maintain what I gained here: a clearer vision of who I am.”
Noor believes that notoriously cold Berliners can learn from the Syrians’ overall positive attitude. Although nearly every Syrian is touched by the conflict, many continue to smile while trying to rebuild their lives.
“Syrians are still laughing and still have this positive energy despite everything they have experienced. They want to do something here,” she says. “They are trying to start from scratch in a positive way. They really want to have a new home until they are able to go back [to Syria].”
While Amr and Noor aim to make the move to Berlin permanent, they hope their homeland can learn something from Berlin when it is time to rebuild.
“Berlin is a great example because it had this terrible experience after [World War II], to lose everything and then have the will to rebuild again,” says Noor. “This is an experience that would be so beneficial to all Syrian cities – to learn what failed in another place, to not lose the opportunity to rebuild.”