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Refugee-led city tours in Berlin

When war broke out in Syria, millions were forced to flee. Many ended up in Berlin, where they now provide city tours for Germans and tourists alike.

Five minutes in and we’ve already been given a task to do. The 20 people on our walking tour of Berlin are asked to brainstorm together and come up with names of famous Syrians as we walk through the Neukölln district. In a café window hangs a white sign: “Refugees welcome” in big letters. Along the streets, we meet parents with strollers, teenagers on skateboards and the occasional senior citizen out for a walk.

Firas Zakri stops and the group forms a crescent around him. Now is the moment of truth.
“I’m curious. What famous Syrians do you know? Except me, of course,” Zakri says with a laugh.

One man names a musician and a woman comes up with a swimmer. The country’s absolute ruler also gets a mention. Then there’s silence.
“Do you know Jerry Seinfeld?” he says. “He is from Syria. The Apple founder, Steve Jobs, do you know him? He was half-Syrian!”

Firas Zakri is 37 years old. Before the war, he worked as an English teacher in Aleppo, but for the past two years he’s been a tour guide in Berlin through the Querstadtein organization, the name of which roughly translates as “an alternative path through the city.” The idea is to help tourists and Germans alike to see a different side to Berlin. Since 2016, they’ve been organizing tours led by new arrivals from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zakri fishes some laminated photos out of his off-white canvas bag. After a few pictures of Aleppo in the twilight and colorful market stalls, the photos turn to overcrowded refugee boats heading across the Mediterranean.
“Some 95% of the refugees have taken this ‘lovely’ form of transport,” he says. “On these boats many have made their last journeys. Whether they sink or not is a matter of luck.”

His dark humor touches the audience and a woman shakes her head repeatedly, as though she’s finding it hard to take in what she’s hearing, especially when he explains it took three unsuccessful and sometimes tragic attempts to cross the Mediterranean before he finally arrived.  
“I was granted asylum in Berlin in April 2017. Two days before Christmas that year, my wife and son were also able to come here. Then, we lived happily ever after. Now, questions!” he says.

The questions rain down. One person wants to know how much he had to pay to come to Europe (€3,800). Another wonders how his cellphone could survive in the water for so long (he wrapped his money, passport and cellphone in vast amounts of plastic wrap). 

Zakri choosing to give his tour in the Neukölln district is no coincidence. We pass both shabby facades and construction work and he finds it somewhat reminiscent of the journey made by Syrians. It’s not beautiful and it’s not easy. Very soon we arrive at a street called Sonnenallee, which is described as Berlin’s Arab hub. Arabs from all over Germany regularly travel here to do their monthly shopping in the grocery stores and bakeries.

“I have a new task for you! No Googling and no teamwork is allowed. You can’t ask locals for help. I have eyes in the back of my head, I used to be a teacher, you know,” Zakri says to the group as he hands out small pieces of white paper with black text written on them in Arabic.

The aim is to match the short text to a restaurant, a grocery store or a bakery along Sonnenallee. The group struggles long and hard. Zakri is trying to show just how difficult it is to learn a new language.
“I study with Germans now. On a math test, I didn’t understand all the questions, but still got it 80% right. A woman looked at me. She got only 50% and was both surprised and a bit put out. Yes, I can be smart. We’re not stupid just because we’re from another country,”
he says before bidding farewell to today’s group.

Querstadtein wasn’t the first place to have new arrivals act as tour guides. In the summer of 2015, tour guide Lorna Cannon was giving city tours in Berlin when she noticed an increased interest in the situation of refugees. People wanted to know more and she didn’t feel she was the right person to provide the answers. Shortly after, she founded Refugee Voices Tours, together with some newly-arrived friends. Since then, they’ve also begun tours in Copenhagen and they’re planning to set up in London and Barcelona.

Interest is skyrocketing. Last year, the two organizations led a total of 730 tours in Berlin. Visitors come from places such as America, Japan, Korea, Scandinavia, Britain and the Netherlands. 

On the same weekend as the first tour, we visit the more touristy parts of Berlin. We’ll be seeing places such as Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall with the help of 30-year-old Eyas Adi, who works for Refugee Voices Tours. He also fled to Germany from Syria. Now he’s waiting at Mohrenstrasse subway station.
First, two women from California arrive and then two women from Germany. The group is so small that we can easily talk with one another. Unlike Querstadtein, you don’t need to register in advance, so the guides never know how many people are coming. Sometimes it’s five, sometimes 30. 
“A friend has done it before and recommended it to us,” says Vera Sauer, who lives in Berlin. “It sounds very exciting.” 

Adi sets off. We’re in the Mitte district and we soon reach the remains of the Berlin Wall. He hardly has time to start talking when he’s interrupted by a huge demonstration. Hundreds of young guys and girls thunder past with loudspeakers and angry signs. In the end, there’s nothing he can do but carry on talking, loudly enough to drown out the rest.

“This was the headquarters of the German government’s secret police, the Gestapo,” Adi says. “After the war, one officer from Nazi Germany actually fled the country and settled in Syria. He became close to the regime leader and is suspected of having implemented a series of old methods of torture in Syria.”

Next stop is Checkpoint Charlie. Officers’ hats, medals and, bizarrely enough, even gas masks are sold as souvenirs. The border checkpoint remains a symbol of those who tried to escape over the wall from East to West for a secure future. It wasn’t without risk. People were arrested, tortured and killed. The parallels with Syria are many.

Adi himself believed to the last that he would remain in Damascus, but in 2016 he could no longer escape military service. He had also been an activist in the past and was forced to flee the country.

Luckily for him, Adi was invited to a workshop in France as a former activist. He was asked to go to -Lebanon and managed to buy his way into the country. There was a long wait for a visa, but finally it came, and after the workshop, he made his way to Germany. Now he has a full-time job at a call center and is training to be a programmer.

On the way to the final stop, we come across a long line of cars honking their horns, with a limousine at the front. Out steps a bride in a gigantic cream cake of a wedding dress. Adi’s face beams. He can tell immediately that it’s a Turkish wedding, but Syrian wedding traditions are very similar. 

The tour is over, but the four attendees linger, asking questions, thanking him for his courage and writing down tips on Syrian restaurants. 
“For me, Berlin is an inspiration,” Adi says. “The city was completely destroyed during World War II, but today it’s an attractive place to live and to visit. I hope that one day we can experience such a transformation in Syria and Damascus.”

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