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Refugees from Syria
Finding Home In The Soul Of Berlin

Many Syrian refugees are trying to find a new home in Berlin. Meanwhile, they are discovering places that remind them of their city, and allow them to map Berlin in a new way.

Berlin reminds him of Damascus, and for this reason, his homesickness is less painful, a friend told me a few months ago. I am also from Damascus, and like this friend, I have been living in Berlin for some time now. Maybe that's why those sentences did not leave my head.

I popped a small question on Facebook, whether other friends and acquaintances of mine found Damascus in Berlin: one comment after the other came in, and with these, a new map of Berlin with Damascus districts and streets was drawn. Of course, this map was quite messy and unclear: what is in the north of Damascus, was moved to East Berlin, what is actually in the west, was found somewhere in the south of Berlin. It was remarkable that many of them used Syrian district names when going to Berlin ones. And everyone understood these names. As much as I was surprised, I had experienced this before: in 2003, when many Iraqis came to Syria after the war, many called Syrian streets after those known from their hometowns.

Taking my questions farther than a Facebook page, I started meeting people and asking them about those places they had mentioned, how and why it reminded them of Damascus. First, I met Hala AlRashid. The 35-year-old woman is a designer of information systems, has been living in Berlin for four years and works as a HR manager for an NGO committed to supporting women in Syria. We met on a sunny morning in Wilmersdorfer Strasse, which reminds Hala of AlSalhyah, a car-free street in Damascus lined with shops on both sides. The little paving stones, the white buildings on the edge, the people chatting here rather than shopping, all this gives Hala, she says, a sense of security. "It is pleasant and not so spacious. I like to come here with my daughter for a walk and then tell her here in Wilmersdorfer Strasse of Syria. "Hala sees herself as a forced expellee. She says, "It does not matter what kind of residence permit you have in your documents, we're here for the things that happen there.I didn’t have the choice to leave or to stay, leaving was the only option I had.’’

Poets in the old Arabic poetry used to start their poems with few verses remembering their beloved ones and where they used to live and how it is turned now into ruins. But the ruins now are not the places; it is us. ‘’I need my old friends to remind me who I am and how I used to be. The people I meet now don’t know how I used to be, this is the only Hala they know and have met, but I don’t consider this the best ‘version’ of me’’. Hala thinks that she is creating an alternative map because she needs something to remind her of the woman she used to be. She describes Syria as a triangle of people, time and place. And recreating the last one is the only thing she can do.

Eyas Adi is 29 years old, a former student at the medicine school in Damascus university, lives in Berlin since two years, and speaks fluent German. While he decides in which field he will continue his studies at the university, he makes Refugee Voices Tours in Berlin and works for Foodora on his bicycle. He describes mapping Damascus over Berlin as ‘’normalization to create familiarity’’ at least when discovering the city for the first time, when the mind is trying to create any bond with the new place. Eyas crosses Berlin on his bicycle while delivering food. ‘‘A new relationship with city grows on the bicycle, I have to give attention to what is happening on the streets, it concerns me and I care about it. It’s like seeing Berlin with different eyes.’’ In Damascus, Eyas rode the bycicle only once: “It wasn’t popular to ride the bicycle, I felt that Damascus on that day was very different and beautiful, though it wasn’t. It was full of checking points, soldiers, and crowds waiting on lines for everything.’’

Hala al-Raschid Hala al-Raschid | © Juliette Moarbes Eyas took me to the quietest and most peaceful corner between two loud streets in Berlin the Karl Marx Straße and Sonnenallee. I’ve never been in the bohemian village (Boehmisches Dorf) before; We walked through Kirchgasse while Eyas was telling me that he comes here to clear his mind and find his peace. He called it “his spot in Berlin’’. It reminds him of ‘‘Saroja’’ which used to be his spot at home, a very small district that also hides behind a corner of two overcrowded streets in Damascus. The two areas are not considered archaeological sites and could disappear any day to be replaced with new buildings. Eyas believes that the mapping might be partly to keep places in our minds that we can’t return to, and to remind us why we are here, but mainly because Berlin is so lively and colorful. It absorbs everyone no matter who they are and where they are from. “If someone doesn’t know the history of Berlin, he can’t imagine that it was divided! Every neighborhood is so different and has its own character; Damascus is the same in that way. Berlin now is an attraction for everybody in the world, and I hope that Damascus someday will be the same.”

Berlin is definitively an attraction for Zeina Qnawati, a 33-year-old journalist living in Prague. She finds herself on a bus heading to Berlin almost every month. ‘‘Only in Berlin, I can find what I miss in Prague, the intimacy within the Syrian community,’’ she explains. Exploring a new city with old friends offers her a chance to explore herself and them again. ‘‘The Syrians here are real warriors, full of energy and they are trying to create new chances to go on with their lives and to belong to the city, but at the same time, they are struggling with the ongoing situation in Syria and the refugee stereotypes, which are so hard to break.’’

To walk and talk with every person and see their favorite places in Berlin turned into a revelation of feelings, memories, hopes, old and new bonds in their lives. All of them are going on with their lives, but remember the place they came from and made them the persons they are today. Everyone mentioned that Berlin’s spirit creates a piece of home for them, be it a place, food, music, social gatherings or maybe the chaotic temper of the city.

I used to go up on a mountain beside Damascus called Qasioun, where I could oversee the chaotic city. It was nice to pull myself away from everything down there and look at it from above. I went to Qasioun for the first time with a friend in my early townies and the last time, after almost ten years, was with the same friend. In between those years, there were unlimited times where we shared every thought, every story, and secret. The last time we were there, we couldn’t distinguish the reflection of the sunset from the far fires on the outskirts of Damascus; the thick smoke was fading into the clouds. We were almost silent, and when we went down, we said goodbye to each other for the last time, and both left Syria to different destinations. I haven’t found my spot in Berlin yet, neither a friend to share it with. But as Hala said, “life is a one-way road, that only goes forward”, and Berlin has unlimited roads. Who knows where the next step will take me to!


This article was first published on ZEIT-ONLINE 4 May 2018. It was part of the series “10 to 8”.
The text and photos are part of the project "Wir sind Viele. Geschichten aus der Einwanderungsgesellschaft"which is part of “WIR MACHEN DAS “.
The project is funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration.