Our guide shakes our hands, and introduces himself with a smile. His name is Mohamad, and he is from Syria. He doesn’t disclose his surname, and when I ask if I can take photos of the tour he is about to give, he says, “Of course, but please none of me.” (he doesn’t say why, but I guess he wishes to protect those close to him back home).
Mohamad is here to show us the city that he now calls home – Berlin. It feels like the hottest place in Europe today (1st April), but Mohamad is composed, dealing politely with small complaints about the last minute change of meeting point.
This is not a conventional walking tour, but one run by Refugee Voices Tours, whose aim is to get people (of any political persuasion) to become engaged with the question of why refugees are “here“.
My knowledge of the refugee crisis has been determined and shaped by news reports, and TV documentaries. Sometimes the ongoing situation is highlighted, at others it hides away behind other stories which are deemed to be more newsworthy. Standing here now (one of a group of about 12 people) looking to Mohamad for an authentic story, I suddenly feel voyeuristic.
Mohamad explains that we will walk through four distinct slices of Berlin’s past. At each stop, he will draw parallels with events that have taken place in his homeland and beyond. Afterwards there will be an opportunity to sample some Syrian cuisine.
As we set off, walking in Mohamad’s wake, I wonder if this format is oversimple.
But over the next two hours, I see that this is a very effective way to convey a sophisticated and multi-layered message – particularly as Mohamad speaks so articulately, with a quiet dignity and integrity.
First, he draws us back to the infamous Hama Massacre of 1982 at the site of a memorial to the June 1953 uprising in East Berlin.
Both insurgencies were cruelly crushed with the loss of lives (in the hundreds in East Berlin, and estimated to be in the tens of thousands in Syria), and in both cases, attempts were made to cover up the truth. Mohamad tells us that the fate of some of the Syrians imprisoned in 1982 remains unknown. If any are still alive, only the authorities will know.
With each of the following three stops, Mohamad builds up the intricate history of the Syrian civil war and leads us through its hard-hitting repercussions. It’s a well-crafted, insightful account.
We go to a huge, visually powerful site now known as Topographie des Terrors, where once the Gestapo, SS and Nazi security service reigned with ruthless brutality. Standing in the full glare of the sun in the stark surroundings of the museum, Mohamad relates the time of initial optimism following Bashir al Assad’s assent to power, and how this was slowly but surely extinguished. The security services and secret police, with their network of prisons, never lost the all-encompassing tight grip they had already held under Bashir’s father, the dictator Hafez al Assad.
Mohamad’s narrative is fluent, unsentimental and very affecting. He poses questions when describing what triggered Syria’s complex civil war in 2011 (the shocking imprisonment and torture of school children being key), then the inexorable rise of ISIS, the devastating chemical weapons attack of August 2013 and the subsequent questionable response of the West.
Just three days after our tour with Mohamad, another chemical weapons attack hits Idlib. It is suspected that the same outlawed nerve agent, sarin, is used as in 2013.
As we move on, Mohamad suggests that as it’s so hot we should grab some water that’s on offer. He goes without.
We arrive at Checkpoint Charlie, where Mohamad seeks out shade for us. He reminds us of the many people who attempted to flee East Berlin between 1961 and 1989. It is thought that about 138 died whilst trying to escape in search of a better future.
And here, Mohamad voices his own moving story in which he has suffered loss and incredible hardship. Faced with the bleak choice of mandatory conscription to Assad’s Syrian Army, or attempting to leave the country in hope of a better future, he opted for the latter. So in 2013 he abandoned his mathematics studies at Damascus University, and embarked on what turned out to be a long and traumatic journey.
But Mohamad’s testimony takes a different slant. When he crossed the Mediterranean by boat from Libya with over 300 others, he says he was lucky, because the conditions were perfect – the weather was calm, no one shot at them, and nobody panicked. Boats that left shortly afterwards carried twice the number of people. He says he succeeded in getting through the Italian-Austrian border due to good timing – a friend tried a few hours later, and was stopped. He considers himself very fortunate to be here in Berlin, helped by its people, and offered opportunities. Now he can work as a tour guide, he has friends and a brother and sister close by, and most importantly, he can live in freedom.
Mohamad gives us a final message at his favourite place, the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt, where a French Cathedral lies at one end, and a German Cathedral at the other. Berlin welcomed refugees in the 17th century too – French Huguenots – and it worked.
Mohamad tells us: people can live together, learn from each other, and enrich each others lives. We are all different, but we are all the same. He also stresses this point: always question the motives of the authorities, because situations can alter by small increments, you can grow used to minor changes, but then one day it becomes apparent that a fundamental transformation has occurred.
And so we part ways. An animated discussion that commenced at Checkpoint Charlie seems set to continue at the Syrian restaurant Mohamad invites us to, but I can’t go.
The tour has punched a deep impression, and while my feeling of voyeurism doesn’t fully dissipate, I do feel very privileged to have heard Mohamad’s real and relevant story first hand.
What is clear is that Berlin is ever-changing – it is admired for its innovation and creativity, and prides itself on its openness. It’s a place where anything goes.
Now the city’s (already multicultural) vibe is becoming more eclectic still with the newcomers’ arrivals and their food, music, and words. Some refugees might not share Mohamad’s pragmatic optimism and sense of connectedness in Berlin, but there is a tangible give and take here that’s alive and happening.
A word about language
Mohamad delivers his tour eloquently in English (he laughs that his ongoing challenge is to master German), but I later discover that his fluency is newly acquired.
Before Berlin, he spent almost six months in Hamburg, waiting for his asylum application to be processed. Living in a tent for 2-3 months (with 30-40 others), and then in a container for 3 months, was not easy. Side by side with other refugees, all burdened with similarly harrowing stories, there was no escape. So he created his own one by focusing on English language TV shows and movies in an effort to master English.
However, the aim remains to unroll tours in German, and I imagine Mohamad is practising hard.
Refugee Voices Tours is the brainchild of British-born Lorna Cannon, who has lived and worked in Berlin for some years as a tour guide. She has also been involved in community projects for refugees, running the cooking initiative through which she and Mohamad met.
Of course, the refugee crisis is not unique to Syria, but the effect of Mohamad’s story would be diminished if it was not personal. Nor are refugees seeking shelter in Berlin alone. In Copenhagen RVT has begun to operate tours led by a man from Iraq and a woman from Eritrea. Soon tours run by a Syrian will start in Paris.