Refugee Crisis Part II: Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

It is no wonder then why Iliyas and Mohammed, two Syrian refugees living in Berlin, decided to end their walking tour at this spot.

Nimish Sawant August 15, 2017 08:40:50 IST
Refugee Crisis Part II: Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

Editor's Note: Refugee crisis is an oft-heard term in regular parlance these days. Ever since German chancellor Angela Merkel's famous 2015 "Wir schaffen das!" (We'll manage it) speech, Germany has emerged as a European nation taking in the most number of refugees. Firstpost's Nimish Sawant travelled to its capital Berlin, as part of the Robert Bosch Foundation's India - Germany Media Ambassadors program, to see how refugees are trying to integrate into the German society. This process goes much beyond just learning the language and knowing the customs and traditions. While some are trying to keep their culture alive in a foreign land, others are building a case for talented migrants in a society that is ageing fast. While some hope to go back home when the situation improves, others prefer building their lives anew in Germany. This article is Part Two of the five-part series which will explore the stories of refugees living in Berlin. Read Part I of the series here

“There’s only one thing I want to say at the end of our tour. Don’t let fear control you. Don’t let fear rule you,” said Iliyas, as he concluded the walking tour, standing in the middle of the Gendarmenmarkt in downtown Berlin.

This square in Berlin, apart from being architecturally marvellous, is also symbolic of the German attitude of letting in outsiders and making them feel at home. The imposing French cathedral on the northern end of the Gendarmenmarkt, was built in the 1700s, by the immigrant community from France - the Huguenots. And it stood right opposite a Lutheran Protestant cathedral of the German natives. “The Edict of Potsdam had ensured the protection of the Huguenots’ religious freedom and civil rights,” according to the official Gendarmenmarkt website.

And that was in the year 1701.

It is no wonder then why Iliyas and Mohammed, two Syrian refugees living in Berlin, decided to end their walking tour at this spot. Whether it's 1701 or 2017, being open to outsiders has been in the DNA of this German city for a very long time.

Did I just say, walking tour, Berlin and Syrian refugees in the same sentence?

Walking tours are generally meant to give you an overview of a city, and are most likely conducted by locals or someone who has lived long enough in a place to know it like the back of their hand. But here I was, being shown around Berlin, by two Syrian refugees.

Refugee Crisis Part II Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most popular squares in Berlin. The French Cathedral is on the right. Image: Nimish Sawant

Iliyas and Mohammed have been living in Berlin since 2016 and 2014 respectively. Mohammed is one of founders of the Refugee Voices Tours, a walking tour company which shows you Berlin through the eyes of the refugees. In this case, Syrian refugees. But the thought of two Syrian refugees giving a walking tour of Berlin had me confounded still. How does that work out?

So, on a sunny summer afternoon, just outside the Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn metro station, I met Iliyas and Mohammed along with a bunch of native Germans and foreigners from the US and the UK. Dressed in a dark gray T-shirt and black jeans, Mohammed informed us off the bat that it would not be a regular walking tour but one that would try to give us a bit of both, the German history and the Syrian history.

The four stops would be: the Federal Ministry of Finance building, Check Point Charlie, Topography of Terror open air museum and Gendarmenmarkt. If one goes purely by timelines, you are criss-crossing between the 1940s and the 1990s as well as going all the way back to the 1700s. That was unconventional to begin with.

After the first stop, the format of the tour became more pronounced. Iliyas and Mohammed would be drawing parallels from Syrian history, at these points of interests in Berlin.

Berlin: 17 June 1953 | Syria: mid-70s onwards

Incidentally, the tour was on 17 June - a date that is so important in the history of Berlin, that they have one of their main streets and a square named after the date.

On 17 June, 1953, the working class population of the erstwhile East Germany collected in groups all across the country demanding freedom of speech and better economic policies. It was a peaceful protest movement, and at least 40,000 protesters gathered in front of the Federal Ministry of Finance building, which used to be the headquarters of the former East German government before reunification.

Things came to such a blow that people started demanding resignation of the East German government, in effect the Socialist Union Party or the SED. In response, the SED took the help of Soviet tanks to quell the uprising. It led to the death of at least 40 peaceful protesters, at least 400 more were injured, and by the evening of the same day, at least 700 others were arrested.

Till date, there isn’t any legal closure to the case nor any definite idea of the number of casualties.

A blown up photo of the protesters laid in the courtyard, and surrounded by memorial wreaths on the day, was in stark contrast to the East German propaganda mural plastered on the wall of this Communist-era building - a mural which showcased working class utopia.

"The message from the government was clear: If you protest against us, we will use the most violent means to shut you down. Something similar happened in Syria in the late 70s when Hafez al Assad (father of Bashar al Assad, the current President of Syria) came into power," said Iliyas. According to Iliyas, in the late 70s Syria witnessed a similar civil uprising against Assad's anti-people policies.

Refugee Crisis Part II Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

The propoganda mural used by the DDR is still present on the Federal Ministry of Finance building, which was the former DDR headquarters Image Source: Federal Ministry of Finance, Jörg Rüger

“In 1982, a town called Hama was the location of mass killings by al-Assad’s army. This was to contain the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, against the government. My family escaped the town, and when they returned after things had settled down, they noticed their entire neighbourhood had been destroyed,” said Iliyas. There are conflicting reports on the death count citing it around 30,000 to 40,000 civilians. Just like the 17 June, 1953 riots in Berlin, there is no clear resolution to the 1982 Hama massacre as well.

After the military coup, which put Assad in power, he quickly started taking measures and making changes in the constitution which would ensure that he was the supreme leader of the country with unchecked powers.

"It started with banning newspapers, banning opposition parties and shutting down all civil organisations. When people started protesting against atrocities the government started arresting protesters and tortured them to send across a message," Iliyas added.

Al-Assad even made an addition to the Syrian constitution - Law 49 - which stated that anyone belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood would be executed without a trial.

The parallels are pretty telling.

Berlin: Migration from East to West | Syria: Migration to any country which would accept them

Check Point Charlie, the famous wall-crossing between the erstwhile East and West Berlin, is a standing symbol of the Cold War. It was also the spot where Soviet and American tanks faced off in 1961 in what has now come to be known as the ‘Berlin Crisis of 1961’. The border in a way also represented movement or a more appropriate term - migrations.

Refugee Crisis Part II Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

Checkpoint Charlie, the border opening between East and West Germany. Image: Nimish Sawant

Syria is surrounded by Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, and once domestic matters started escalating, several Syrians escaped the country through open borders.

“To give a perspective through numbers, Syria had a population of 25 million. As of today, only 7 million people remain and only 60 percent of them are displaced Syrians - people who have fled their place of birth in Syria. Majority of the population has fled the country," said Mohammed. He fled to Egypt, and then to Libya where he was worked for an internet company.

But situation in Libya's Benghazi forced Mohammed to come to Europe and eventually to Germany.

On being asked why one only heard of young male demographic leaving Syria, Mohammed said that the main reason was the compulsory military service.

"Every Syrian male, once he is 18 years of age, has to undergo a compulsory 2-year military stint. There are exceptions made if you are studying at the university or in other special cases. But after a point, you have to serve two years. And young Syrians know that means fighting against your own countrymen. It is not an idea that appeals to many young people,” said Mohammed.

Mohammad added that another reason to leave the country was the money. As job prospects back home are dismal, Syrians leave the country to earn enough so that they can send some back home. The families then elect one person as the breadwinner and do everything in their power to send him abroad.

Berlin: Topography of Terror | Syria: The ongoing terror

‘Topography of Terror’ is a mix of an indoor and outdoor museum located on the sites where former Nazi government’s secret police - the Gestapo - and its paramiltary action force - the SchutzStaffel or SS - had their headquarters.

While most of the buildings were destroyed after the second World War, the foundations of these buildings were excavated. This 200-metre stretch acts as a backdrop for the information panels and photographs displaying some of the most heinous crimes committed in human history.

Refugee Crisis Part II Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

Topography of Terror, an open air museum that gives a chronology of the evil methods of the SS and Nazis. Image: Nimish Sawant

Iliyas used this location to remind us of the timeline of atrocities that continue in modern Syrian history. Starting from the late 70s and coming all the way to 2016, Iliyas gave a rundown of how the civil strife came about in Syria, the atrocities carried out by the Assad family, the rise and fall of the Free Syrian Army, the rise of the Islamic State which took over Raqqa and Mosul, the chemical attacks by the Assad regime and more.

"The regime didn’t even spare 9-15 year old boys, who had painted a grafitti, ‘Your turn, Doctor’, as a prank on their school walls,” says Mohammed. He was referring to an incident in a small town called Daraa in Syria which would spark off the current day conflict that has disrupted life in Syria.

In 2011, post the Arab revolution which led to the stepping down of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, a group of boys from the age group of 9 to 15 decided to paint grafitti as an act of rebellion. Inspired by their compatriots in neighbouring countries, these schoolchildren sprayed the phrase ‘Your Turn, Doctor’ in Arabic. It was a dig at Bashar al Assad, the ruling president who also happens to be a trained opthamologist, and meant to imply that it was his turn to step down. There was a crackdown the next day and the security forces threw these "rebels" in jail.

The parents of these children approached the head of security forces of Daraa, Atef Najib (a cousin of Bashar al Assad), to plead for their wards’ release. “Najib is alleged to have responded to the parents thus: Forget that you had any children. Go on and make new ones. If you can’t, then send your wives to the security forces’ office,” says Iliyas.

This, and more interactions with the regime, sent a message that the government didn’t care about its citizens. The protests just kept getting bigger. And the Syrian unrest continues to this day.

We were told about the elections in Syria and how they became a joke after the Assad family kept making random additions and subtractions, as if it were an editable document. Iliyas calls them a referendum, more than an election, as there is practically no opposition.

"There’s a black joke which is quite popular in Syria. During the last referendum, a man voted NO for Assad. After realising his folly as he was walking out of the polling booth, the man returned to change his vote, calling it a mistake. ‘Don’t worry, we have already changed the vote on your behalf’, he heard from the booth guard." Ironically, that brought a smile on all our faces.

Interestingly, a former Nazi war criminal had fled to Syria in 1953. Alois Brunner, an Austrian ShutzStaffel (SS) commander who had devised mobile ‘gas vans’ which led to the death of many innocent Jews. The Assad regime kept him under house arrest, in exchange of learning the Nazi torture techniques and clandestine police work. He died in 2001 in squalor, feeding off Army rations.

Berlin: A land of hope!

Refugee Crisis Part II Two Syrian refugees on a walking tour in Berlin tell us how history teaches us nothing

Brandenburg Gate. Image: Nimish Sawant

Mohamed and Iliyas spoke at length about their personal histories, involving many days and weeks of uncertainty, till they finally achieved a ‘Recognised Refugee’ status.

While Iliyas has succeeded in getting his immediate family out of Syria, Mohammed has plans to get his parents to Germany soon. His student status is a limiting factor. It is also a reason why he shies away from being photographed while he is conducting these tours. The sword of government repressions against his family hangs over his head. But Mohammed is optimistic.

“I would call my boat journey from Libya to Italy, a five star journey as there were only 300 other adults on my boat with 50 children. Also, the weather was good when I was travelling. A few weeks after I came to Europe, my friend who arrived in the same boat told me that he travelled with 700 other refugees. I couldn’t even imagine how they could fit that many people,” said Mohammed.

Iliyas and Mohammed's tour of Berlin might not teach you much about Germany, but it will make you think about conflicts and how history teaches us nothing. As a parting shot, Mohammed said, "I once had an English lady as a guest. After the tour, I asked her what was her takeaway and she said ‘I will look at the news of the refugee crisis with a fresh eye going forward’ she said. It may not mean much to you, but was one of my most treasured feedback,” smiled Mohammed.

Refugee Voices Tours take place in Berlin every Saturday at 3PM outside the Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn metro station

Read Part-I of the series here

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