With Fresh Eyes: A Refugee-led City Tour through Berlin-Neukölln

By Max Mayer

Firaz would wrap his experience in jokes and laugh, when he talked to us about his journey from Aleppo, but his eyes would tell a different story. They wouldn’t quite follow suit and gave a hint at what was present though not named in his account.

Refugee-led city tour through Berlin’s district Neukölln

Firaz, an English teacher from Aleppo in his mid-30s who has been in Berlin since 2015, is one of the two Refugees who showed us around their Neukölln, Berlin, on a warm Friday afternoon, presenting far more than just a refugee’s perspective on the quarter they lived in. It was certainly no easy task to have the twenty-odd bunch of tired junior scholars listen and walk around for more than two hours after an intense week of workshops and discussions, but to Firaz it really seemed to pose no challenge, gripping us with the slight tension that prevailed between the difficulty of his journey and arrival and his welcoming presence as he introduced us playfully to his world that is now Neukölln. And so we learned about the first bank in Berlin to open accounts and worlds for refugees (Berliner Sparkasse), Berlin’s first 100% Syrian fast food restaurant Shaam on Karl-Marx-Straße, and about Refugio, a multi-ethnic shared accommodation with a community-concept, where 40 people with different backgrounds live together, run a café and assist each other, most of them refugees. Together, we stood on the enormous scale, stretching along Alfred-Scholz-Platz, indicating the ethnic composition of the Neukölln population, that is only a few years old but has long since outdated.

Firaz is one of the many who have reshuffled the population in Neukölln where more than 160 different nationalities live today. It was in between the Neukölln sights that he introduced us to his past and his future, ranging, among others, from the “fireworks” that almost hit him, his wife and son in western Aleppo three years ago and that prompted him to sell everything he had and start his journey; via the different “yachts” he attempted to cross the Mediterranean with; and up to his two-year long waiting period for his application for asylum to be decided, which will now enable his wife and son to legally follow him to Germany. He let us experience the difficulty of identifying words in a foreign script, when we wandered around Sonnenallee, trying to match Arabic words he handed out to us with the many Arabic restaurant-signs along the street.

It was this combination of games and narration that gave us a hint of what a refugee’s experience might be like, one of the aims of the Querstadtein, the organisation that organized our tour. The non-profit offers Berlin city tours with refugees and with homeless tour guides to allow people to see the city through subaltern’s eyes and get an impression of their circumstances of life. Quite successfully so: in 2016, the organization saw its 10,000th visitor. For Firaz, giving tours is more than a job, it’s a mode of contributing to the mutual acquaintance of new and old inhabitants of this country and a way of gaining a voice within a debate that has lasted for years now in Germany and Europe. With his refugee status confirmed and his family on the way soon, he is finally set to start settling in. His perilous undertaking that started almost three years ago is drawing to a close at last.

Talking about the road ahead, his relief speaks from the composure that marks his presence now. It does so despite the fact that things are still far from settled for him here. He knows that his degrees and work experience from Syria are worthless here and he will need to reorient and learn something different. Thus, when asked about where he sees a need for change in refugee politics, his answer is clear: degrees would need to be accepted in Germany far more to enable Refugees to get the kind of work they have qualified for back home.

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