In a changing city, how Syrian refugees’ journey to Berlin led them to a mile-long stretch of a Neukölln street

Omnified contributor Emily Bader explores how a stretch of Neukölln street has become home to immigrants and refugees.

Photo by Emily Bader.

A post for Omnified by Emily Bader

From “Little Beirut” to “Arab Street”

Back in the 1970s, Berlin experienced its first major wave of refugees and asylum seekers from the Arab world: Lebanese and Palestinians fleeing the violence of the first Lebanese civil war arrived in Germany. The war droned on for another 15 years and the population along Sonnenallee in the Neukölln district became more dense as more of the migrants from the Middle East settled down and created new lives for themselves. “Sun Avenue” became known as “Little Beirut,” a safe haven for established immigrants and newcomers alike among the fraught politics of a divided Berlin.

Less than 40 years later, Lebanon’s neighbor, Syria, devolved into civil war as President Bashar Al-Assad’s loyalist forces clashed with rebel forces and a number of other factions in the wake of the Arab Spring. Almost 13 million Syrians have been displaced since the beginning of the civil war in 2011 according to the Pew Research Center – which amounts to about six in 10 Syrians – almost half of whom are internally displaced.

After Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the country’s open border migration policy in 2015, Germany admitted more than a million people seeking protection, most of whom were from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, according to a March 2018 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

About 8 percent of the new migrants to Germany landed in Berlin. But of those new migrants, like those of decades past from the Middle East and North Africa, many found a sense of home and community along Sonnenallee, where the lingua franca is Arabic, not German; the sickly sweet smell of shisha fills the air the second you turn the corner from the Hermannplatz U-Bahn station; and is one of the few places in Berlin where the number of shawarma shops far outnumbers the number of currywurst spots.

Ahmad Al-Sakka, 21, (left) serving customers at Yasmin Alsham on Sonnenallee. Photo by Emily Bader.

Finding Syria in Berlin

After leaving their homes under dire circumstances, many Syrians find a taste, a smell, a look of home on the main stretch of Sonnenallee between Hermannstraße and Wildenbruchstraße. Many of Sonnenallee’s patrons commute to this Neukölln street from other parts of Berlin or suburbs in the Brandenburg region.

The street serves as a place to gather, to eat, to shop, and for many, to work. For many of Berlin’s young Syrian migrants who are still in school or attending university, they find part-time work at one of the many confectionaries or savory spots that dot the street.

Ahmad Nanaa, 21, works at his uncle’s shawarma shop, Yasmin Alsham, which opened in February 2017. He arrived in Germany three years ago by way of Turkey, where he was for two years. His life is in Germany now, he said. He attends university and has a steady job, friends and a community in Berlin. He does not know when or how he could return home to Syria, and besides, he said, it would be too difficult to start from scratch for a second time. But, he finds comfort on “Arab Street”: “You feel okay. [Like] I am back home.”

What generations of refugees means for Sonnenallee

Yasmin Alsham is one example of the blending of generations and countries along Sonnenallee: It was a joint venture between a recently arrived refugee from Syria and a longtime Berlin resident who fled Lebanon over 30 years ago. Not all intergenerational relations among the street have been so successful, however.

For some of the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees who began coming to Germany in 1975, poor social integration as a result of cultural differences and inadequate social welfare led them to turn to organized crime. These crime rings and Mafioso-like families are a not-so-hidden secret of the predominantly Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish neighborhoods in Berlin.

In the last decade or so, the German government has said these crime rings have moved into real estate and other small businesses, which had a direct impact on the new Syrian migrants moving into Sonnenallee and opening their own ventures without the support of the older, established generations.

For some businesses, such as the popular Aldimashqi Restaurant, this has caused major problems, leading to the sudden closure of their first location and move to a second storefront following explicit threats within months of their opening in 2016. For many of the older generations, there is a feeling that the new refugees are receiving the support from the government they never received.

But not all of the Arab people who come to Sonnenallee have fled conflict and seek asylum: Some also come for a change of scenery, to be with a partner, or for greater economic opportunities, like so many in the expat-heavy Berlin. Mahmoud Fakhro, 30, moved to Berlin with his wife, who is German, five years ago. Now, he works at Konditorei Umkalthum, selling sticky baklava at a bakery named after one of the most famous Egyptian singers of the 20th century.

“What’s this? What’s going on here?”

Fakhro did not initially know about Sonnenallee when he first moved to Berlin. But upon finding it, he’s found that what truly makes it special are not just the fact he can speak Arabic or eat food from his native country, its the people that he interacts with everyday. He calls it the “negatives and the positives,” of “Arab Street.” For example, people are always cutting the lines. It’s really annoying, he said, but this nuisance and cultural departure from what he considers politer German society reminds him of life back home.

Mahmoud Fakhro, 30, at Konditorei Umkalthum. Photo by Emily Bader.

At the same time as refugees from Syria began arriving in Neukölln, a burgeoning hipster scene was also developing. A block and a world away, cafés are littered with succulents, signs adorn tables that request patrons put their laptops away and speak to their neighbors, and you can get a small matcha latte for the price of two halloumi sandwiches. Though the gentrification of Neukölln is a concern for some watching the development of the neighborhood, the area’s Arab character has only continued to grow stronger.

Nanaa sees it almost as a state within a state: When a German turns onto Sonnenallee, they are the visitor, he said, not him. This sentiment would certainly provide a sense of ease for Nanaa, who was one of the millions of Syrian refugees who have spent significant time in Turkey, where tensions between the Turkish populace and the Syrian migrants have boiled over into violence at times.

Turkey’s government, which hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country in the world by about two million, has made efforts in support of Syrian migrants. But the growing number of incidents, particularly in cities along the Turkish-Syrian border, have been stoked by ethnic profiling and socio-economic disparities.

The shawarma spit at Yasmin Alsham. Photo by Emily Bader.

Sulaiman Al-Sakka, 20, has been in Germany for four years. Like Nanaa, he, too, spent time in a country that has reportedly become increasingly hostile to Syrian refugees: Egypt. Al-Sakka and his family had to leave Egypt when anti-Syrian sentiments erupted following the July 2013 ousting of then-President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The new government claimed that the refugees were connected to the Brotherhood via Morsi, who had vocally supported the plight of the Syrians. Not only were discriminatory practices put in place, but more and more Egyptians became openly antagonistic toward Syrians, according to the UNHCR.

Al-Sakka, who is from Homs, Syria, found a very different environment in Berlin along “Arab Street.” His face lit up as he told a story of how a Syrian friend who lives in Stuttgart came to visit him “only to eat shawarma.” He remembered his friend telling him, “you are so lucky to have everything here.”

A passerby looks at the desserts through the window of Konditorei Damaskus. Photo by Emily Bader.

When he’s not in school, Al-Sakka works at his family’s pastry shop, Konditorei Damaskus, which opened a few years ago. When he and his family received their refugee status from the German government, his father began to think about opening up a bakery, selling classic confections of their home country. But their small Berlin suburb of Falkensee wasn’t exactly their target demographic. A friend of his father’s from Syria, who has been living in Germany for more than 20 years, told him about Sonnenallee.

“If it doesn’t work with the Germans, maybe it will work with the Arabic,” recalled Al-Sakka, speaking about his family’s decision to establish their business in Neukölln. Now, he said, more than half of their customers are German and they can barely close their doors for more than a few moments without someone knocking, looking for a sweet fix.