February 5th marks the 28th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall – a significant date because the wall has been down for as long as it was up. Berliners today have moved past seeing their city as previously divided and have moved on to embrace Berlin as a haven for misfits, the marginalized, and the ambitious.
And while Berliners – native to the city and elsewhere in Germany – have resigned to the city’s dark past, the newest wave of Berliners are just coming to terms with their own. Having brought their own trauma of war, Syrian Berliners, with the help of a tour organization, are narrating their experience in Berlin as survivors of war in cities not that, too long ago, were destroyed by war.
Querstadtein And “The City That Keeps On Giving”
Starting in the late Twentieth Century and well into this decade, Berlin has been renowned as a city of refuge for people seeking shelter from political strife and violence. These shared experiences among generations of Berliners – German and otherwise – has earned the German capital the title “the city that keeps on giving.” Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Germany has seen a total of one million refugees cross its borders. Turkey currently hosts three million refugees – the majority of whom are Syrian.
In late 2016, Quartz reported that about 55,000 refugees were registered in Berlin that year alone. Jezebel predicted the number could near 60,000 that same year. Accurate numbers are difficult to ascertain given the complex bureaucratic process that most refugees go through. Tens of initiatives kicked into high gear when refugees began making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and overland across mainland Europe. With slogans like “Refugees are welcome here” and “No one is illegal,” thousands of refugees found lodging, food, and legal help where it could be offered. Berlin’s defunct Tempelhof Airport was transformed into a makeshift shelter to house incoming refugees.
With scores of organizations offering legal help for refugees and a political frenzy buzzing overhead, Syrian refugees in the city have begun to call Berlin home. In the southeastern borough of Neukölln, Syrian restaurants, grocery stores, and shops have popped up to cater to the recently-arrived Syrian community. Other initiatives to preserve Syrian culture like Between Us and Improv without Borders have flooded Berlin’s already vibrant cultural scene. But one particular initiative had another vision of how to get Berlin’s new residents to feel at home. Querstadtein, a Berlin-based tour group, began hiring Syrians to give tours of the German capital in an attempt to bridge two peoples’ experience with war and migration.
When Two Worlds Collide
When Querstadtein started as a volunteer-based initiative in 2013, the number of Syrian refugees in Germany was under 5,000. At the time, Querstadtein, a project of the social organization Stadtsichten, began to hire previously homeless individuals to give tours of Berlin in an effort to show tourists what the city looked like through their eyes. When the impact of the influx of refugees to Europe began causing an uproar in 2016, Querstadtein began to incorporate refugees into its tour project.
According to the project’s manager, Dominika Szyszko, Querstadtein never saw their tours as filling a gap in the city’s ‘tour industry.’ In an interview with progrss, she says, “We encounter [the homeless] everyday on the streets, but we don’t really talk and we don’t really have dialogue.” She says she thought it was unusual that other European cities had homeless tours and not Berlin, despite it being a topic of debate.
Based on the same philosophy, Querstadtein began to hire refugees as tour guides since they saw their tours as a potential platform for dialogue between refugees and Berliners. “[The tours became a] tool of exchange for discriminated peoples in society,” Szyszko says to progrss. “We all live in this city, we share this space. We encounter [each other] every day in different places, and [yet] we have problems with talking with each other.”
The group’s first tour was given by a previously homeless man in 2013, who later began to volunteer with Querstadtein on a regular basis. Soon enough, the organization was working with more previously homeless guides who were giving tours to students, researchers, journalists, and even politicians from Berlin and around the world. Szyszko says, in one instance, members of the conservative political party SDU took one of their tours.
The first Syrians to give tours with Querstadtein were from Szyszko’s personal network, who was active in helping Syrians in Berlin in 2015. But when she had exhausted her network, Querstadtein sought refugee tour guides by placing ads for the position. Szyszko says many applied, but Querstadtein’s work as a platform for exchange resonated with only a few. For the refugees, similar to tour guides who were previously homeless, the tours are an opportunity for their voices to be heard. Szyszko tells progrss that the fact they are showing older Berliners parts of their own city they hadn’t previously known facilitates this process of exchange.
As of this year, Querstadtein is headed out of a housing project called Refugio and has grown significantly. Most of the project’s tour guides are from Syria, but they are working closely with Afghan and Iraqi refugees. The project provides their refugee tour guides with resources when possible such as accommodation arrangements and legal help, the latter of which Szyszko says tends to be a problem for some of their tour guides. According to Szyszko, Querstadtein does not keep count of its total number of tours, but she estimates the project has given some 2,000 tours since its first one in 2013.
Dear Aleppo, From Berlin: Same City, Different Space
Visiting Neukölln, a disproportionately migrant and working-class neighborhood in Berlin, is an inviting yet transient experience. The area, which currently hosts almost a quarter of Berlin’s total Arab population, has become one of the city’s main local attractions. Boasting some of the city’s best Syrian shawerma (meat or chicken shavings prepared on a spit) and kanafeh (syrup-and-pastry-based dessert), it is commonplace to hear more Arabic than German on Sonnenallee, a main street in the area. While this phenomenon is akin to New York’s Chinatown or California’s Little Kabul in the Bay Area, Sonnenallee has a historical twist that sets it apart.
Before Berlin was reunified in 1989, Sonnenallee was one of many separation points between East and West Berlin. The street, which today runs through Neukölln and Treptower Köpenick, was bisected by the wall. There are no remnants of the wall today besides a couple of cobblestones that mark where the wall divided the popular district, but with the settling of war’s newest victims come fresh memories of another violent past.
On Querstadtein’s tours, the tour guides play a game with tour-takers. The tour guide gives the tour-takers the name of a shop or nearby sign that is in Arabic and ask them to find it. As they scramble to ask shopkeepers and people passing by, a dialogue between the local community and tour-takers takes place. “Because they can talk to the shop owner in Arabic, [the tour guides] can share their story,” Szyszko says. While this game began as an activity to get tour-takers acquainted with their surroundings, it coincidentally facilitated a process of exchange between tour-takers and Syrians in Neukölln.
After the EU cut a deal with Turkey in 2016 and another with Libya last year, refugee arrival in Europe dropped dramatically. But for the so-called lucky tens of thousands of Syrians who are currently in Berlin, the city is a double edged sword: it is both a place of refuge and a space of marginalization. For most Syrians, Berlin is unchartered territory when they finally arrive after their life-threatening journeys. With little to no knowledge of German and often very little experience in a bustling European city, Berlin is a hostile space. Consequentially, the know-how that they develop in navigating Berlin strongly informs their experience in the city.
The kinds of tours that Syrian Berliners give are not particularly historical, Szyszko tells progrss. Rather, the insight Syrians give to tour-takers is derived from their experience in the city as refugees and as new Berliners. On some occasions, new refugees in Berlin find themselves gravitating towards Neukölln and Sonnenallee, to be specific, because of their familiarity. In an interview with The Guardian, Mahmoud, a tour-guide for an organization called Refugee Voices which also provides refugee-led tours, highlighted the importance of Neukölln to refugees. “This is the meeting point for all refugees and Arabs in the city. It makes them feel at home,” he said. He goes on to talk about how he was introduced to a relative he hadn’t known in Syria when they met on Sonnenallee.
Szyszko tells progrss that the goal of their tours is not to directly influence politics – change that grass-roots initiatives like Querstadtein do not usually strive to achieve. Rather, she says that after the tour, “[people] are never able to think of [refugees] as a mass or as a problem. They see them as people. And that is the impact we achieve.”
“Ich Bin Ein Berliner”
In 1963, American President John F. Kennedy took the stage to give what was one of the Cold War’s most evocative speeches. With four words, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” (I am a Berliner, and allegedly I am a jelly doughnut), many across Berlin and elsewhere in the world were captivated by this ideological stance of solidarity.
To the dismay of many, Germany’s latest elections in 2017 saw a 12.6 percent win for the political party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Increased support for the right-wing party is rooted in the rising anti-refugee sentiment that has swept across Germany and Europe. While many Germans have extended their arms in support of refugees, the party’s small yet staunch win speaks to how the refugee influx is impacting Germany’s politics and social fabric.
The city is thus a hostile space for Syrians across the board. Some areas like Marzahn-Hellersdorf, are known to harbor anti-refugee sentiment. Coupled with what some call the neo-Nazi movement in Germany, Syrians and their places of residence are often targeted in hate crimes as a form of political frustration with the government’s stance on refugees. This, however, has not deterred Syrians from carving out spaces for themselves in the city. In an interview, Arij Oudeh, another tour guide for Refugee Voices, spoke to The Atlantic about the familiarity that Syrians find in certain places in Berlin. Shaam, one of Sonnenallee’s most famous Syrian restaurants, “is like an embassy” for Syrians, she says.
Some see the kinds of tours that Querstadtein and Refugee Voices organize as what Germans call ‘elendstourismus’ or misery tourism. Dominika Szyszko doesn’t see the tours in the same light. She believes the tours are not calling for sympathy from tour-takers, but, rather, empathy. They are a rare moment of empowerment for the refugees since they offer tour-takers knowledge they do not previously have. It’s a form of therapy for them and a moment of pride for them, she tells us. And although Berlin remains a hostile place for refugees walking around the city, the tours they lead give them an opportunity to share their experience with people who want to listen.
A City for All
There are many shared experiences of war, devastation, but also collective memory across Berlin and Syrian cities. The daunting memory of war in Berlin is brought roaring back with Syrians carrying the weight of their trauma. And despite the shared experience between Germany and Syria, albeit decades apart, some seem to have forgotten the heartbreaking experience that is war. Initiatives like Querstadtein are working to sharpen that memory in a way that doesn’t bring back the war to the streets of Berlin, but, rather, evokes a feeling of empathy, remembrance, and solidarity with a people who are new to this post-war traumatic experience.
While Berliners have a long way to go to maintain Berlin’s reputation as a city for all, seeing the city through refugee eyes is one step in the right direction. And just as the cobblestone marking where the Berlin Wall bisected Sonnenallee decades ago, we can hope for a similar future for Syrians in Berlin and elsewhere in the world, working to bury their all-too-recent memory of war and start over.
Querstadtein gives tours by the previously homeless in German and refugees in English every Sunday.