Ali and his mother don’t speak much German—but then, neither do I. Nor does anyone at this table, with the exception of Peter, a Berliner who is here once a week, entirely voluntarily, to help people like us muddle our way through der, die, and das. Elsewhere, in the more advanced groups, the conversation is free-flowing, and a pleasing hubbub fills the echoey hall. Our beginners’ table, however, relies considerably on charades.
Still, it’s surprising how much you can learn from people without a common tongue. I have discovered that Ali’s dream is to train as a nurse, and that back home in Afghanistan, his mother—let’s call her Mrs. Ali—was a seamstress. I’ve learned that Afghanistan produces a lot of pistachios—an easy one, because the German is Pistazien—and that Mrs. Ali does not especially like to swim. She gently nudges a plate of small wrinkled fruit toward me. “Persische Beeren,” she says: Persian berries. She brought them for us to share.
There are more than a hundred of us gathered here tonight in the Refugio building in Berlin’s Neukölln district, from all over the world: Britain, the United States, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, Syria. Some people in the room have fled conflict, persecution, or crippling poverty in their home countries; many never imagined that they would find themselves looking for work, and for friends, in a country whose language they had never spoken before. But where you’re from and why you’re here isn’t the issue at the Sprachcafé (conversation group). We’re all just here to practice our German over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
It has been nearly five years since Angela Merkel announced that Germany would open its borders in response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis in decades. By 2015 the devastating civil war in Syria had displaced millions of people, vastly adding to the numbers of those already fleeing conflicts in Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq, not to mention Afghanistan and North Africa. “Wir schaffen das,” Merkel said. We can do this. From Munich to Hamburg, ordinary Germans gathered at train and bus stations to meet the new arrivals, handing out food and clothes and toys. Though Merkel’s commitment was controversial—and the country continues to grapple with nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric—many took people into their own homes; organizations sprang up to provide longer-term support.
Since 2015, more than a million people have sought asylum in the country, and its Willkommenskultur is part of its appeal. Nowhere is that culture of welcome better demonstrated than in Berlin, a city that’s reimagining the whole concept of “integration.” To be fair, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The city was initially overwhelmed by the number of refugees, massive makeshift camps caused tensions between newcomers and locals, and the country’s vocal alt-right party is staunchly anti-immigrant. But the integration efforts have been largely successful. There are places like the one I’m in now: Refugio, a five-story Sharehaus created to house immigrants alongside native Berliners. Forty people live here, using communal facilities and cooking weekly meals together. And Refugio’s efforts at solidarity extend far beyond its residents.
In its downstairs café, local helpers work the espresso machine alongside the newcomers, exchanging skills and experience and enjoying one another’s company. And in the large event space where I’m currently sitting, activities including choirs, meditation sessions, and the Sprachcafé take place every week. They’re run by partner organizations such as Give Something Back to Berlin, whose volunteering network—made up of people like Peter—ensures that this conversation class is free for all. Later, when we’ve all wished each other a “Macht’s gut!,” I step out the door into the streets of Neukölln. It’s a neighborhood just southeast of the city center, bordered by ghosts. To the west is the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport, where U.S. military planes once supplied their American bases during the Cold War. To the east an invisible line, enduring primarily in maps and memories, marks where 12-foot-high concrete and barbed wire once stood. Until 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall’s jagged edge tore through here, separating friends and families, countrymen and -women. If any European city understands exile, it is this one.
There are, it is said, 160 different countries represented in this part of Berlin. I walk along the Sonnenallee—Neukölln’s major thoroughfare—past restaurants advertising Turkish bread and Lebanese kibbe and Sudanese falafel.
Neukölln’s diversity enfolds me instantaneously. A nearby dentist’s office advertises its services in four different languages. The mannequins in a bridal shop wear suits, dresses, and thobes (Middle Eastern robes) to cover all manner of wedding traditions. At the end of the road is Hermannplatz station, where even the traffic fumes can’t overpower the smells of spices and cheeses from the market, now closed for the night. During the day, fruit and vegetable sellers sing out the prices of produce to a mixed crowd—some in hijabs or African head wraps, others with train-driver caps and hausfrau hair.
There are, it is said, 160 different countries represented in this part of Berlin. I walk along the Sonnenallee—Neukölln’s major thoroughfare—past restaurants advertising Turkish bread and Lebanese kibbe and Sudanese falafel. (The latter comes with a special peanut sauce that’s outrageously tasty, but don’t overdo it, or within half an hour you’ll feel like you drank a quart of wallpaper paste.) Many of the recent additions are Syrian.
At Konditorei Damaskus, a modest, overlit storefront, rows of flaky pastry gleam behind the glass counters. There are so many kinds of baklava and sweet-cheese kanafeh that I’m overwhelmed, and it takes a moment to realize that one of the bakers is holding out a sticky lump of dough for me to sample. The filling is cheese, he tells me in English, and the flavor is rosewater. It’s not as sweet as I’m expecting; I suspect I could eat a dangerous amount of it if left unsupervised.
Most of the young men working tonight are related to some degree: Their uncle Tamem opened this place three years ago. He ran a family pastry business back in Homs, before the Syrian city was besieged and shelled. These days his desserts are some of the best-known in Berlin. I ask the baker to fill a box with one of everything; as Mrs. Ali has reminded me, it’s good to share.
On the weekend, I join Hesham Moadamani on a walking tour of the city he now calls home. Refugee Voices Tours offers a very different perspective on Berlin’s most famous sights, combining German political history with the personal experiences of its Syrian guides. The idea, Hesham explains, is to help people see refugees as individuals, rather than an economic problem—and the best way to do that is simply to meet and connect with one. Our first stop is the Platz des Volksaufstandes von 1953, in the middle of the city. As cars and sirens sweep noisily around us, Hesham describes how, 67 years ago, East Berlin construction workers protested against increasingly oppressive conditions in the country. Soviet Union troops were sent in to quash the uprising, killing and wounding dozens of civilians.
It’s a story Hesham understands from firsthand experience; he was born in Syria under a regime that used fear to stifle dissent. “You didn’t even talk about the government at home,” Hesham says, “because the walls had ears.” As we walk, Hesham moves on from talking about the East Berlin uprising to the Arab Spring of 2011, when the Syrian security forces’ murderous response to peaceful protests in the city of Daraa sparked the first waves of violence in the country. Hesham was studying law in Damascus when the war took over. He and his brother became citizen journalists, filming government attacks and posting them on social media. His brother was captured and killed; Hesham escaped across the border. By the time he reaches this part of his story, we’re standing at Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall’s most famous crossing point, where guards used to shoot at anyone who attempted to flee from the East.
Berlin isn’t just somewhere people fled to; it’s somewhere people also fled from.
Today, with its blimp ride, hot dog stands, and constellation of tourist trappings, it’s hard to imagine the foreboding this corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse once evoked. But Hesham knows about military checkpoints too. He had to smuggle himself through them to get to Jordan, before risking his life swimming from Turkey to Greece. He says this city’s history gives him hope, and he likes to end his tour at the Gendarmenmarkt, where two grand domed buildings mirror each other across a beautiful square.
The one to the north was built in the 18th century by French Huguenots, who after fleeing Catholic persecution, found sanctuary in the city. “It’s one of my favorite places,” he says, “because it has such positive implications—two different nations, standing on the same soil, showing that people can live in harmony. And it’s a reminder that the refugee narrative is not something new.”
Berlin isn’t just somewhere people fled to; it’s somewhere people also fled from. When the tour is over, I walk to Niederkirchnerstrasse, the street that housed the Nazi Party’s secret-police and military-police headquarters during the 1930s and ’40s. Most of those buildings were razed to the ground by Allied forces at the end of World War II. The site is now home to the Topography of Terror museum, which unflinchingly records the atrocities carried out from this place. Berliners understand the importance of remembrance. It’s raining hard as I pass by, but there are still scores of people standing under umbrellas, patiently reading the outdoor exhibits.
Around the corner are the remains of Anhalter Bahnhof, which was once one of Berlin’s largest and busiest train stations. During the war, trains departing from here ferried nearly 10,000 Jews to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Nazi-occupied Czech lands—a way station to concentration camps. All that’s left today is the entrance portico, an imposing piece of brickwork fronted with columns and punched through with three round windows. Half-arches stop in midair, leaving chunks of wall that look like bite marks; the roofline is topped with replicas of the original statues. Only the vast sports field behind it—today the province of two lone boys practicing their soccer skills—gives some sense of its former scale.
A few years from now, the Anhalter Bahnhof will be the site of a new museum, the Exilmuseum, dedicated to the lives and fates of those expelled from the country after the Nazis seized power in 1933. Many left behind all they had and had known; few would ever return. The Exilmuseum’s curator, Cornelia Vossen, has said that the aim of the museum is not only to inform people about history but also to use the emotional power of the experience “to make people think about exile today.”
Vossen wants to give those who visit a better understanding of why people become displaced, “and make them understand that refugees don’t choose to leave their country.” The Nobel Prize–winning writer Herta Müller has called the project “Erziehung zur Anteilnahme”: education for empathy. Until it exists, it’s enough to stand near the Bahnhof ruins reading the sign that commemorates the different kinds of trains that left this station—some safely carrying children out of Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, others sending parents and grandparents to their deaths.
The following day I head to Kreuzberg. Like Neukölln, it was one of the areas of West Berlin closest to the wall, a place where foreign migrants have long lived and worked. The neighborhood has a large Turkish presence—Germany and Turkey created a guest worker program in the 1960s and many of those migrants remained in the country—and the doner served at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap stall is so famous that the line of customers regularly tails down the street to the U-Bahn station entrance.
This evening, the queue is full of young people at the start of their night out; since Kreuzberg’s gentrification, the neighborhood has become one of the hippest hangouts in Berlin. A sign for a record store catches my eye and I cross the street, following the steps down to its basement location. Its impressive collection includes a room dedicated entirely to Turkish music. The owner, Erbatur, tells me it’s mostly songs from his youth, rock and pop from the ’70s and ’80s. They’ve become curiously popular in the past few years, he says, and not just with people from his home country.
Erbatur never pictured himself selling records for a living; back in Turkey, he was a university lecturer on urban planning. A few years ago he signed a petition, along with a hundred or so academics, protesting the authoritarian policies of President Erdoğan. Their names and faces were published in the Turkish press. “They told people to go after us,” Erbatur says. “So we had to get out. I’d already lived through four coups d’état. But when you have family and children you worry more.”
Farther down the road is Kreuzberger Himmel, a restaurant that opened its doors to customers in 2018, and whose food has the sort of reputation that keeps it busy every night with a discerning clientele. I take a seat and watch the dishes move around the room in the hands of the smartly dressed servers, to couples on quiet dates, friends catching up without their kids, and a large family gathering that might be a birthday. On each table, an array of rich colors collects—speckled green tabbouleh, earthy hummus, deep purple beets.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Andreas Tölke, who began helping to house asylum seekers in 2015, initially in his own apartment, when he discovered that the state support system was overwhelmed. “There were more than 1,200 people gathering daily in front of the office responsible for refugees in Berlin,” Andreas says. “So civilians stepped in.” He conceived the restaurant as a stepping-stone for those looking for work, and he’s proud of how many employees have already moved on to better jobs.
The menu here reflects the diverse background of kitchen staff. From Othman, the Syrian head chef, there is kabse—a fluffy rice dish with marinated chicken that’s been cooking, I’m told, for three and a half hours. The fattet makdous—a mouthwatering stew of minced meat and eggplant that’s so aromatic I find myself sniffing the bowl—is the work of Layali, who had her own catering company in Iraq. Salads are prepared by Dania from Palestine, who has been in Berlin just three months. Everyone working here, from bartenders to sous chefs, arrived in the city as refugees.
In the kitchen, pastry chef Alaa stands over a pan, boiling milk and cornstarch with a little vinegar until it curdles. It’s the ingredient that gives her desserts their special surprise—the sweet cream, or ashta, ready to burst from the middle of each one. It’s a skill Alaa learned at home; she has never worked in a kitchen before. She worked at her husband’s accounting business until the part of Syria they lived in became a “red zone,” where government and opposition forces waged daily battle.
She enjoys Berlin—the sense of freedom, the ease with which she and her family can get about, be it by bike or train “or even electric scooter!” Her son is eight years old; he used to be scared by the city, but he’s made friends at school now, and it already feels like a second home. Not to Alaa, though, not yet. “For me, in my heart, this is difficult,” she says. “I cannot separate from Syria. My father and mother, my brother and sister are all in Damascus. We talk to each other a lot, but we miss each other.”
At the bar, Yazan makes me a moka-pot coffee and introduces me to his friend Mohamad, a professional dancer; the two young men are collaborating on a film project inspired by their experiences since leaving Syria. “I had culture shock when I first got to Berlin,” Mohamad admits. “But people here are so tolerant, generous, open-minded, and dance has helped the transition. Some people don’t understand me and my background, but when they see that I can dance, they stop seeing me as a victim. They understand that I’m new to Berlin but not new to life.”
On my last day in Berlin I meet up with Anwar Al Atrash, a Syrian artist who wrestles with issues of perception and prejudice in his work. The Wedding district in the north of the city, where Anwar has his studio, still remains just beyond the fingertips of Gentrifizierung (gentrification). The morning flea market at Leopoldplatz station is a multicultural gathering where the locals pick over tables of saucepans, candlesticks, spectacles, DVD players, plastic dolls, glassware, and fishing tackle or root through chest-high piles of clothes. I watch one paterfamilias leave with a vintage clock under one arm and a gas heater under the other.
It’s also a place where Berlin’s more radical counterculture still exists, be it in a giant tree house where residents meet for potluck suppers and “groove meditation,” or the Himmelbeet urban community garden, where a wooden fence is daubed with the slogan “Solidarity can change everything.” For Anwar, it is a good example of just how engaging the city can be for newcomers. “There are so many places where you feel like you can go and build something with others,” he says. On only his second day in Berlin, he found a workshop that helped him get to know the Berlin art scene; within a week, he was making art.
Hanging on the walls of his studio are framed paintings protected with shrink-wrap and packing tape. They are the only artwork he was able to carry with him when he left Syria, and he has kept them in their packaging ever since. Another series of 12 images depicts Anwar’s journey between Damascus and Berlin, each one interrupted by a dramatic swath of crimson—his response to a curt remark from an immigration official that he shouldn’t expect the red carpet to be rolled out for him.
After a cup of tea, Anwar takes me to the KulturMarktHalle, a former supermarket that has been transformed into a community art space serving an ethnically mixed population. The lunchtime dance class has just finished; along the walls hangs an exhibition of work by a group that Anwar has been mentoring. Some of his students have never painted before, and several are newcomers with refugee status. It’s important, Anwar says, not to overuse a word with so much stigma and shame attached. “When I arrived, some artists and galleries wanted to label me a ‘refugee artist,’ but there’s no such thing,” he says. “I am an artist. I arrived here as a refugee. But that is done.”
Among the paintings is one he encouraged them all to create together, a blitz of images and swirling patterns in a palette of greens and yellows and fading rose. There are words too—some in German, some in Arabic. I ask Anwar to translate them: love, happiness, passion. And then a phrase that makes him smile: “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin,” or “I still have a suitcase in Berlin.” Pulled from a German song popularized by Marlene Dietrich in the 1950s, the line became famous when Ronald Reagan used it in his emotional call to tear down the Berlin Wall in 1987. To him, says Anwar, it means “there’s always a home for me here.”
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Emma John Emma John is a journalist at the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a contributing writer to AFAR.