Arab Street in Berlin brings nostalgia for Syrian refugees

Sonnenallee, a bustling avenue in southern Berlin, is a home from home for many of the 600,000 Syrians who fled to Germany to escape the civil war

Azzam Restaurant on Sonnenallee, dubbed 'Arab Street', in Berlin. David Crossland for The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

BERLIN // Coffee sellers with silver dallahs, shop windows filled with shisha pipes, bakeries selling pistachio baklava and greetings of “assalamu alaykum” – Sonnenallee, dubbed “Arab Street” in Berlin, is booming.

The bustling avenue is a home from home for some of the 600,000 Syrians who have fled to Germany since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border refugee policy has enabled more than one million refugees from the Middle East and Africa to come since the start of 2015.

"This street was empty before. Now a lot of refugees are coming here and there's a lot more business," Hassan Azzam, from Lebanon, told The National in the busy Lebanese restaurant he manages. "They find everything they need here, there are all kinds of shops selling Arab products. It reminds them of home."

“I can’t see the trauma in their faces, you can’t tell what they’ve been through,” he said. “But in the evenings you do see young men drunk, walking around on the street, saying ‘my brother died in the war, my mother died’.”

On a sunny afternoon two weeks ago, Sonnenallee was crowded with youths talking on cell phones, women in headscarves pushing prams and shopkeepers unloading groceries. Old men watched the world go by, sucking on water pipes and flicking their prayer beads.

“It’s cold,” said Ali, an elderly man from Damascus selling Arabic tea and coffee from a stall. “But it’s busy.”

The street was alive with the chatter of people exchanging pleasantries and gossip.

There was a sense of community and outdoor life that is uncommon in Germany’s orderly cities, where people queue quietly for their bread and newspaper, tend to refrain from talking to strangers and opt for the sterile anonymity of supermarkets rather than corner shops.

“It reminds me of some suburbs of Damascus, I feel a bit at home there,” said Ameenah Sawwan, a Syrian activist and journalist who fled in 2014. “The people in the shops smile at you. In the restaurants they’ll give you a piece of felafel for free while you’re waiting or let you try the dessert before you choose it.”

“Some Syrian friends visited me from Norway and France and when they saw it they said ‘oh my gosh, I want to move to Berlin because of Sonnenallee’. They don’t have a whole street like that in Paris or Oslo.”

Sonnenallee was bisected by the Berlin Wall until 1989. It runs through the working class district of Neukolln in southern Berlin, which has been home to a large Arab population since the 1970s and 1980s when many Lebanese arrived there, fleeing the civil war.

Neukölln has 33,000 Arab residents, about a quarter of the Arab population of Berlin.

Their number has increased by 10 per cent since 2015, and will go on rising next year when new refugee hostels are completed in the district, officials said. The influx has led to a trebling of business rents on Sonnenallee in the last three years, said shopkeepers.

“Ten per cent of the Syrians who come here have a lot of money and don’t have a clue about the market,“ said Rafik Almadah, an ice-cream maker who moved to Germany from Damascus in 1996 and opened a cafe serving Syrian fare on Sonnenallee in 2013. “The landlords are hearing that they’re offering a lot of money and that’s driving up the rents.“

As the suffering and dying continue in Syria, Arab Street offers refugees a source of comfort in the taste of Damascene food, the scent of shisha tobacco and the availability of the best hummus and felafel in Berlin.

But for many, life remains grim even in rich, safe Germany as they battle bureaucracy and wait for news of friends and relatives trapped in the fighting back home.

“You can sense the trauma, no one seems happy but they know that life has to go on,” said Mr Almadah. “They say ‘I’m living in paradise but I’m not happy’. Many people go back to Turkey. There’s more atmosphere there. Here, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, people can’t handle it. And the weather plays a big role.”

Berlin has been slower than other German cities to register and process asylum seekers and even though new arrivals have fallen sharply since March when the EU struck a deal with Turkey to halt illegal migration to Europe, more than 3,000 migrants in the city are still being housed in sports halls and aircraft hangars. Many of them have been living there for more than a year.

Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians and even some supporters of Bashar Al Assad – all the Syrian factions are present on Sonnenallee, along with Lebanese, Iraqis and other nationalities. There’s not much open tension between them, but there is wariness.

“Yazidi women don’t like to come to Sonnenallee because they’re afraid of encountering the men who killed their relatives,” said the integration commissioner for Neukolln, Arnold Mengelkoch,.

“But there’s no open hostility. The last shooting on Sonnenallee was years ago. We had a very good summer on the street and we hope it remains that way.”

Politics and religion aside, there is a culinary rivalry between Syrians and Lebanese. “Syrian food is fatty,” Mr Azzam, the Lebanese restaurant manager, said dismissively.

Mr Almadah, who runs the Syrian cafe a few doors down, disagrees. “Syrian food tastes better because of the spices,” he said.

The Berlin authorities are ambivalent about Arab Street. They know it helps refugees, but also risks pushing them into a parallel society and into illegality.

“War refugees who’ve just arrived can take a breather here, get their bearings, buy groceries and things like phone cards,“ said Mr Mengelkoch. The disadvantage, he said, was that there was no pressure for people living in and around Sonnenallee to learn German quickly because the Arab community there was so big.

“That risks becoming a problem if they don’t find jobs. If you don’t earn your own money, don’t pay taxes or feel a connection with the country, you will tread water and get frustrated. New arrivals must say ‘I want to learn German and I want to be find out about my new home country’.”

That’s easier said than done given the time it takes for refugees to obtain work permits and German language tuition.

“I am certain that when everything is OK again in Syria, 90 per cent of the people will go back again,“ said Mr Almadah. “That may be in 10 years. Or a hundred.”

In the meantime, they have Arab Street.