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Scene in Berlin

Tolerance in norm-breaking Berlin

Berlin is famous for its laissez-faire attitude and people of all walks of life feel comfortable living here, but a certain degree of discrimination persists that NGOs want to combat by promoting understanding.

Non-Berliners often wonder how I can live in Neukölln, on Sonnenallee of all places, not far from the infamous Hermannplatz. "All those druggies, all those alcoholics and so many foreigners," they say, wrinkling their nose.

As a foreigner myself, I have no beef with foreigners. Indeed, this is what drew me to Berlin in the first place. In other parts of Germany, I felt my foreignness on a daily basis. In the capital, I am one of many, so don't feel foreign. In the western district of Neukölln, about half of the population has a non-German background.

Although I speak German, I love the fact that I can hear French, English, Turkish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Russian and a whole plethora of other languages on the streets here.

I also love the fact that I can eat delicious humus at a restaurant just across the street, which is frequented by Palestinians and Israelis looking for a taste of home. And that gözleme (a Turkish take on calzone), which would not be out of place in Anatolia, can be found nearby, as well as croissants that would delight a Frenchman, pizza a Sicilian mama would not snub, and pho soup that would go down just as well in Hanoi.

I love buying dates, coriander and watermelon from the Syrian shop next door. I love going to the Chinese market to stock up on rice noodles and lemongrass, and I also love buying traditional German bread from the local organic bakery.

'I'm gay and it's good that way'

I don't bat an eyelid if a woman is wearing a headscarf, I don't care if two guys are holding hands and I certainly don't gasp if I see a teenager covered from head to toe in tattoos. Such scenes are part of everyday life in Kreuzkölln.

This rapidly gentrifying border area between Kreuzberg, which before the fall of the Berlin Wall attracted an eclectic mix of gays and lesbians, men from all over Germany wanting to avoid military service, and immigrants mainly from Turkey, and Neukölln, a mainly working-class district with a high proportion of migrants, is a textbook example of urban multiculturalism.

Generally, Berlin, whose mayor famously said he was gay and "it's good that way," is known to be a city where anything goes and most inhabitants appreciate the overall openness.

However, that does not mean that there is no prejudice based on color, gender, sexual preference, religion or nationality. Berlin is not the Promised Land - there is high unemployment and other social problems and these are frequently accompanied by discrimination.

Another reason intolerance still persists is that although people from many different backgrounds live side-by-side, crossing each other in stairwells or in supermarkets, they do not necessarily know each other very well. There is a phenomenon of what is often described as "parallel worlds."

The Sehitlik Mosque in Neukölln

The Sehitlik Mosque opened in Neukölln in 2005

Not just live and let live

Thus, a number of NGOs and initiatives have emerged to promote understanding and tolerance in the city.

One project I recently discovered is particularly inspiring. Ursula Rettinger launched her mentoring scheme in Neukölln schools a few years ago and has been encouraged by its success. The idea is to pair adult mentors with teenage "mentees" and support them in the transition from school to the working world by helping them to find internships, jobs or to apply for further education.

Iris Clemens, an anthropologist and education specialist, joined the scheme shortly after moving to Berlin. Having made a conscious decision to find an apartment in Neukölln, she told me she wanted to get involved in a social project that would help her get to know the district better.

She explained that there had to be understanding if there was to be tolerance. "Otherwise it's just living and letting live," she said. This is ok, but it doesn't break down the "parallel worlds."

Rettinger paired Iris with a 14-year-old girl whose parents had been forced to flee Bosnia during the war. The second child of a family of six, she was born in Germany and speaks fluent German, but does not have a German passport.

She is torn between two worlds - her Albanian-speaking Ashkali community, which is closely linked to the Roma and Sinti communities, and mainstream German society.

Iris, who lives just a few blocks away from the family, has often been to their apartment and is astounded by the hospitality with which she has been received.

"I have gotten to know a world I could never have imagined," she said, expressing her respect and admiration for her mentee and her older sister.

Since their 36-year-old mother is unwell, the two older girls are effectively bringing up their siblings, which means that they sometimes cannot go to school. When they do make it to class, they often fall asleep.

Moreover, about 20 to 25 people constantly stay in their two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment.

"She doesn't get any silence or calm at home. That's why she likes coming to me," said Iris, who lives alone in an apartment of roughly the same size. Not only does she feel she can relate to her mentee, her family and the community as a whole considerably better now, she said she had also learned a great deal about herself.

A housing estate for Roma and Sinti in Neukölln

Many Roma and Sinti have settled in Berlin after fleeing discrimination and war

'This is enrichment'

This is perhaps for me the most important aspect of supporting understanding and co-existence in Berlin. By getting to know others, we can also enrich our own lives.

This is also what Aycan Demirel from KIGA, the Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism, pointed out. The NGO campaigns against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in schools in Kreuzberg and Neukölln.

"These youths want recognition of who they are. They are both - they are Turkish and they are German and this is a good thing," said Demirel. "This is enrichment. It is something great."

Demirel does not like to use the word tolerance: "Who tolerates whom? This is a matter of rights and equality. Everyone in this country has to understand that we are all equal. I do not want to be tolerated. I want rights. It is a question of acknowledgement and acceptance."

Norbert Poppe, the project head at the Kreuzberg-based NGO RespektABel, which supports projects that fight against violence and right-wing extremism across the city, was less reluctant to use the term, defining his understanding of tolerance as openness towards other people regardless of their background, and a willingness to find a way to live with one another.

"It doesn't always have to be about finding a compromise," Poppe told me. "But it's simply about saying: 'This is an open society in which I can live and in which I don't need to apologize for thinking differently.'"

"But there are basic rights and basic principles which are sacrosanct," he added. "And that's where tolerance ends."

I recently felt my tolerance was being tested in Neukölln when I got a strong impression a shopkeeper was not serving me because of my gender. I was stubborn and returned to the store a few days later. I got the same impression but insisted on being served.

A few days later, the same man greeted me like an old friend and started complaining that he was hungry because he hadn't eaten all day. I commiserated with him as he proceeded to explain all the Ramadan traditions to me.

My perseverance had borne fruit - here were two foreigners speaking to each other in German about universal human needs. Indeed, it is sometimes simply a question of getting to know one another. And that's why I live on Sonnenallee.

Last week's column

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