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In Berlin, Travelers and Recent Immigrants Connect Across Cultures

By Emma John

02.04.20

From the March/April 2020 issue

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In Berlin, travelers and residents come together for a performance at Refugio’s community center.

Photo by Nikita Teryoshin

In Berlin, travelers and residents come together for a performance at Refugio’s community center.

Refugees and immigrants are bringing their skills and insight to the capital of Germany. Here’s how travelers can engage while on a trip.

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The concept of solidarity holds strong in Berlin. Since Germany opened its borders at the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015, its capital city has worked hard to welcome the newcomers. In their turn, immigrants from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Turkey and beyond have been benefiting their new neighborhoods with their skills, cuisines and creativity. Here are just some of the ways that a traveler to Berlin can engage with the cultural exchange going on there—and learn more about the spirit of solidarity.

Guided Tours

Refugee Voices takes a group of travelers on a tour of Berlin to learn about the Syrian experience.

Refugee Voices Tours

In 2015, a group of friends came up with the idea of Refugee Voices, walking tours led by Syrians during which they would share their experiences and offer context for why and how refugees were coming to the city. At the end of the flagship Saturday walking tour, travelers are invited to join the guide at a Syrian restaurant, where they can continue the conversation and enjoy a dinner of delicious Syrian specialties (including the lamb and rice dish mandi) for USD$9 a head. The company also offers guided walks that introduce the refugee rights movement and workshops that focus on empathy and volunteering.

The two-hour “Why We’re Here” tour runs every Saturday at 3 p.m. It begins at Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn station, at the exit closest to Wilhelmstrasse. Suggested donation from USD$5. 

Multaka: Museums as Meeting Point

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The Multaka project began as a way to offer refugees the chance to explore their cultural connections with their new home and share those connections with other newcomers. Four separate museums—the Pergamon, the Bode, the  Museum for Muslim Art, and the German Historical Museum—have worked together to train Syrian and Iraqi refugees as guides and offer free Arabic-language tours through galleries that exhibit and celebrate artifacts from Syria, Iraq, and beyond. They also provide the same tours in English and German, so you too can learn more about the historical links between Berlin and the Middle East. Tours take place at 3 p.m. every Saturday. 

Restaurants

Malakeh

There’s no denying the impact that Syrians are having on the city’s culinary scene. Take Malakeh Jazmati, who hosted a cooking show on Jordanian TV before settling in Berlin. Malakeh had already cooked for Chancellor Merkel and published a popular recipe book when she opened her eponymous restaurant in well-to-do Schöneberg in 2018. On the walls hang black-and-white portraits of her heroes—men and women who fought for human rights in Syria—and on the tables are specialties from Aleppo, such as grilled chicken sizzling in its own juices and hot cheese oozing from a deep-fried corn pocket. They’re the kind of dishes you happily give up the rest of your afternoon for. Potsdamer Strasse 153.  

Aldimashqi

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One of the first restaurants to bring bona fide shawarma to Berlin, Aldimashqi was greeted with open arms by the Syrian community. In fact, it became so popular it had to move to a much bigger building. The shawarma itself is chicken—shaved from a rotating skewer, like a doner—but it’s the secret spices that make it a lip smacker. Aldimashqi also offers some delicious desserts, including sweet-cheese kanafeh pastry. Reuterstrasse 28.

A Middle Eastern medley prepared at Kreuzberger Himmel

Kreuzberger Himmel

Andreas Tölke launched his restaurant in 2018 as an exercise in empathy. He hoped to help create jobs for the wave of immigrants and refugees entering the city, but he also wanted to create space for native Berliners and new Berliners to meet eye to eye. So he launched Kreuzberger Himmel, where chefs prepare a range of Middle Eastern dishes that rapidly gained a cult following: hummus and tzatziki, fattet makdous (eggplant stew), and bitlawa, a honey-soaked pastry filled with pistachios. 

Organizations and Events

Über den Tellerrand

This NGO’s name translates as “beyond the edge of the plate”—a German expression that means openmindedness—and its light-filled kitchen workshop is in constant use. The cooking classes that take place are a space where refugees, locals, and travelers can all bridge their divides, learning from one another’s cuisine. As well as being a great way to learn how to make delicious Afghan or Iraqi or Palestinian dishes, these classes—and other activities—forge long-lasting relationships. They’ve also spawned a football team, a jam band, an urban garden, a community beehive, and a hip nightclub (Bulbul, near Görlitzer Park) owned by one of the NGO’s chef. Rossbachstrasse 6.

Give Something Back to Berlin

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An ambitious and popular volunteering project, Give Something Back to Berlin runs almost daily events in various locations. Open to everyone, the offerings create spaces for people from all backgrounds to find community, and for refugees to find their place and pursue their passions in the city. There’s a music school, language classes, singing sessions, arts and craft studio time, workshops, and a monthly cooking program called Open Kitchen—and new ideas are always brewing. 

Refugio

Part apartment, part community center, this five-story building in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood is one of the city’s most ambitious integration projects. Travelers can join in the free weekly conversation groups to practice their German, pop by to meditate or pick up a latte in the café, or visit in the evening for one of the many performance nights.  

Galleries and Museums 

KulturMarktHalle

A former East German supermarket has been transformed into a cultural space that brings together people from many different parts of Berlin and the world. There are regular exhibitions and concerts, as well as dance sessions, arts and crafts workshops, conversation classes, and a café. Part of the program changes monthly, and in the summer a mobile café and performance space tours the city. 

Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum

Four million East Germans sought asylum in West Germany between 1949 and 1990. More than a quarter of those came through this transit camp on their way to new lives. The Marienfelde Refugee Center has been preserved as a historic site, and the museum within is an informative and moving tribute to that time, explaining and exploring the history of migration and exile in the divided city. Marienfelder Allee 66-80, open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., free.

>>Next: In Berlin, Everybody’s Willkommen!

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