Syria has been shattered by conflict since March 2011; more than 5 million people have been forced to flee the country and rebuild their lives elsewhere. Jessica Bateman travelled to Berlin to hear the stories of three Syrian refugees who now call the city home and are working hard to keep their culture alive in the German capital.
Berlin’s Sonnenallee is a 5km stretch of main road running between the certified hipster districts of Neukölln and Kreuzberg. Back in the communist period, the street was intersected by the Berlin Wall and contained a border crossing, still marked by two lines of cobbled stones.
That the street was once home to a wall between communities seems fitting, because today Sonnenallee has become something of a bridge. Shisha cafés like those in Damascus or Beirut sit next to coffee shops serving flat whites to bespectacled laptop workers.
The smell of shawarma and tobacco mixes with fumes from the busy traffic, and voices speaking in Arabic, German and English catch your ear as you walk along. The Sonnenallee of 2017 is now affectionately known as “Arab Street”, and is the unofficial hub of Berlin’s newly arrived Syrian community.
Although the city has long been home to large Middle Eastern and Turkish populations, the more than 600,000 Syrians who’ve arrived in Germany since the outbreak of the civil war are making their presence felt.
Along with the Syrian restaurants popping up in and around Sonnenallee, throughout the city you’ll also find Syrian-led tours, music, dance and storytelling nights and community projects such as refugee kitchens.
Of course, immigrant communities will always bring a part of their old country to their new home, from Indian takeaways to Nigerian barbers. But for Syrians it takes on an added poignancy. Much of their own country has been destroyed, and they have left their homes not out of choice, but necessity.
A trip to Berlin now offers the chance to learn not just about World War II and the iron curtain, but to also gain a deeper understanding of Syria and its people. We meet some of the Syrians working to preserve their culture 2000 miles away from home.
Ihab was 12 years old when he first started writing poetry in Damascus, penning notes about a girl he had a crush on. “But as the war started to develop, and things got worse, the subjects changed,” he tells me.
Handsome and well-built, he could be mistaken for any other 19-year-old lad. But like most young Syrians, an early maturity and wisdom have been forced on him, which becomes apparent as we chat over a cup of tea.
After travelling to Germany in 2015 aged just 17, Ihab started writing about his experiences stuck in a refugee shelter, being a stranger in a new country, and seeing on the news how hostile the public were towards asylum seekers. A friend alerted him to the Syrian Storytelling Arena, and suggested he get in touch about performing.
Participants work with translators and their stories are performed in Arabic, English and German. They don’t just deal with violence and politics, but everyday themes such as life before the war, home and family.
“I was so nervous at first, I was expecting to be hit with rotten tomatoes,” he laughs. “But when I did it, it was amazing.
“Seeing people’s reactions and hearing the applause – it was like a drug.”
The monthly event is the brainchild of Rachel Clarke, who has worked as a storytelling coach and curator for many years. She became involved with the Syrian community in 2015 while helping teach German classes.
“We were spending eight-hour days together, and they started telling me their stories,” she tells me later. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do an event’.”
Both Ihab and Rachel say the power of storytelling lies in bringing people together and demonstrating their shared humanity.
“When I first met my German friends, they’d say to me ‘You’re different,’” continues Ihab. “Then when they came to the event and started listening to everyone’s stories, they started to recognise that actually we’re not.”
He tells me how, at the beginning of an event, Westerners and Arabs will usually gravitate to sit in separate groups. But by the interval they’re chatting, discussing the stories and getting to know each other.
And just as physical objects such as food or artefacts help preserve a culture, so do people’s words and memories.
“We bring places to life when we talk about them,” he concludes.
“Syria lives on in our hearts and minds. We’re never bored of talking about it.”
In the grand marble hall of the German National History Museum, 26-year-old Salma Jreige is holding a yellow sign that reads “Multaqa”. “It means ‘meeting point’ in Arabic,” explains the law graduate from Damascus, who came to Germany in 2014. “We see museums as places we can come together and start discussions.”
The tour, led by Syrian and Iraqi refugees, takes place at four of Berlin’s biggest museums – the others are the Museum of Islamic Art, the Museum of Byzantine Art and the Vorderasiatisches Museum.
The idea arose from the Syrian Heritage Archive Project, set up by the Museum of Islamic Art to create a digital archive of sites and artefacts at risk of destruction.
“There are so many educated people here – people with PhDs, Masters – who can’t get jobs because they’re stuck in the German bureaucracy system,” says Salma. The museum’s director, Dr Stefan Weber, thought there had to be a way of using these peoples’ skills, and so the tours were born, she explains.
Some guides talk attendees through the many Middle Eastern artefacts in the museums’ collections. “You don’t learn about a culture just through looking at objects,” Salma continues.
“Interacting with the people is what really matters. When you hear people talking about their country, you instantly feel connected to it.”
“You don’t have to be a historian, you just have to be human.”
Assertive and articulate, Salma was working as a waitress when she first heard about the project, and immediately wanted to be involved. “I’ve given tours to political parties, to diplomats – all kinds of people,” she says.
Other guides will discuss German history, but from a Syrian perspective, to help newly arrived refugees connect to the country. “There really are so many parallels between Syria now and what happened in World War II, it’s crazy,” she remarks.
Much attention has been given to the destruction of ancient sites, such as the city of Palmyra (Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, pictured left in 2010), throughout the brutal six-year war. Salma says it gives her a sense of pride that her culture is documented in Berlin, yet stresses it’s the human loss that matters most.
“Obviously historical places are important, but what people should concentrate on are the homes,” she says, her green eyes burning.
“Take Aleppo – it was one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and it’s basically destroyed. It’s not just about historical ruins, it’s the history of the families that lived there and everything they’ve lost.”
As I make my way back to Sonnenallee, the street is alive with the buzz of traffic and bicycles. In the newly opened Damas Gate restaurant, which specialises in shawarma, 44-year-old Motasem Mchwah is wiping down tables as colleagues in the kitchen chat loudly in Arabic.
“There are Syrian people here, Syrian shops, Syrian bakeries,” he says of the street. “Sometimes it’s like I’m still working in Damascus.”
With its stone archway and traditional bread oven, Damas Gate aims to replicate the country’s typical eateries right down to the last decor detail. Motasem shows me a wall hanging depicting a grand Arab house with inner courtyard. “This is the style of building in Syrian cities,” he says. “Well, before they were bombed.”
Many refugees in Germany struggle to find work due to employers having to prove that no EU national could do their job.
But food is a lifeline for some due to the shortage of workers in the catering industry, coupled with demand for Middle Eastern flavours.
Motasem works here and also in two-year-old Alagami restaurant down the road, which serves more formal lunch and dinner options. Both only employ refugees.
Back in Damascus he worked in sales and marketing. “I liked it, I was a professional,” he tells me. “But the war ended everything – my job, my home, everything.”
After arriving in Germany in 2015 via Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe, he was introduced to Alagami’s owner through a friend. “They asked me what I could cook and I said hummus, baba ganoush, tabouleh.”
He tells me he’s looking forward to his wife and three sons, aged twelve, nine and five – who he hasn’t seen for two years – finally joining him this September.
Sharing a hearty meal is an essential component of Syrian culture. At Alagami I opt for the Damascus breakfast, served every day until 2pm.
Huge plates of creamy hummus, tender falafel, paper-thin bread, vegetable crudités and a fava bean, milk and tahini stew are placed in front of me. We tuck in, ripping and dipping the various elements. “I need to be careful not to eat too much,” chuckles Motasem, patting his rounded belly.
A warm welcome and in-depth chats about life back home are served up in Sonnenallee’s restaurants as frequently as the many cups of sweet Arabic tea.
“People come here for the food but always ask us questions about Syria,” Motasem says. “Many people don’t know anything about us or our country. But through this, they can understand.”
Images top to bottom (left–right): Pixabay/CC0; urbanistiques/Flickr; Rachel Clarke; Rachel Clarke; Jessica Bateman; Percy Germany/Flickr; newpalmyra/Flickr; Jessica Bateman; Jessica Bateman; Jessica Bateman.