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Berliners at a barbecue gathering, Copyright: GSBTB (Give Something Back to Berlin)
Image: GSBTB

Scene in Berlin

Lillie Harman
November 19, 2014

Berlin is full of paradoxes, but whether you're an asylum-seeker or an expat, Berlin is trying hard to welcome you. DW's Lillie Harman experienced first-hand just how intolerant - and welcoming - the capital can be.


This past summer, I was walking to an appointment in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Giant white and green police vans filled with burly and bored-looking officers were blocking off the roads on my route, and the place was uncharacteristically quiet.

This isn't exactly an uncommon occurrence in Berlin; almost every weekend I come across a protest or an alarmingly large fleet of police vans holding officers eating döner kebabs, waiting for something to happen. To access one of the many blocked roads, I had to present an officer with my ID. This wasn't such a common occurrence.

Later that day I heard that the dense police presence had to do with the eviction of the refugee camp in the old Gerhard-Hauptmann School on Ohlauer Strasse. The school and surrounding neighborhood block had been blockaded for eight days by riot police, protestors and press in what some say was the most expensive police operation in Berlin's history.

Police at a demonstration in Berlin, Copyright: James Robinson
Police presence in Berlin isn't uncommonImage: James Robinson

In the months following the eventual eviction from the school, the refugees were relocated to hostels, but later made homeless. Many of their asylum claims were rejected without a proper evaluation, leaving the refugees feeling let down and lied to after a series of broken agreements between them and the district government. Hundreds of Berliners have since reacted by offering the refugees accommodation in their homes, but of course this isn't a long-term solution to the refugees' persistent struggle.

A heart for others

Berliners visibly fight for the disenfranchised, minorities, and for what they believe in - and this is one of the reasons I've always been so drawn to the city.

Energy and resistance is woven into the very structure of Berlin's personality. From utter chaos grows camaraderie and while this resistance is often fragmented into distinct sub-cultures and political groups, these public displays and actions somehow nurture a sense of citywide unity.

Stickers on a door, Copyright: L. Harman
Berliners aren't shy with their opinionsImage: DW/L. Harman

Especially in the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, you'll see slogans like "Refugees are welcome" and "Wem gehört die Stadt?" (Who does the city belong to?) painted on walls, printed on flyers stuck in the windows of bars and cafés, and on the walls of toilet stalls.

Berlin has become known as a place of tolerance and open-mindedness, I've found. Lots of us settle here to seek out a home amongst the like-minded.

Space for tolerance

Originally from Latvia, my friend Ieva moved to Berlin after living in London for six years. Like me, she had to part with London as the cost of living was simply too high, with increasingly shrinking job opportunities and less time and space for creativity. Like Berlin, London has become increasingly popular over the years, pushing Londoners into zones further out of the city or to new cities altogether.

We spoke about her incentives for moving here and what makes Berlin feel like home. She explained that at the moment, living in Latvia isn't really an option. Due to ongoing prejudice, it's hard to be openly homosexual and, as a result, difficult to find a relationship or have a family. However, the attitude is gradually changing and she's certain she will return in the future.

Scene in Berlin logo, Copyright: DW

When apartment hunting, Ieva was looking for a place where she would feel accepted and not experience prejudice, and she eventually moved into a women-only LGBT apartment. The most important thing for her is that her flatmates are also tolerant of others and their lifestyles, both inside and outside the LGBT community.

For Ieva, it was both Berlin's left-wing political scene, which she experienced as welcoming, and its cultural tolerance towards members of the LGBT community that influenced her decision to live here. Berlin is a city in which political engagement goes hand-in-hand with everyday living and, for now at least, is a city which Ieva is proud to call home.

The other side of the coin

Amidst tolerance, intolerance remains. Within my first two weeks of living in Berlin I came across a sign reading, "UK out! Aus out! Spain out! Italy out!" It was hard not to feel saddened by this and for the first time, it crossed my mind that maybe I wasn't as welcome here as I thought.

The anti-foreigner sentiment, although not overwhelming, is undoubtedly present. In true Berlin style, however, there are those who fight against this attitude and negativity by exploring practical solutions. I recently met with Lucy, who works for the urban integration platform, Give Something Back to Berlin, which encourages people to share their skills in the local community. We spoke about the work of GSBTB over a ginger tea in a Neukölln pub.

Graffiti reading
Writing on the wall...Image: DW/L. Harman

Lucy explained that the platform was founded soon after recognizing significant tensions growing in the city between "old" and "new" Berliners, mainly attributed to the influx of young people - many of them expats - coming to work in the increasingly popular creative and startup scenes. Signs like the one I had seen during my first weeks in Berlin and others such as, "Touristen raus!" (Tourists out!) and "Hipsters not welcome" started popping up around the city.

Lucy and I spoke about the concept of global migrants, which can be divided into three distinct groups - the professional, the creative and the student. Often the global migrants are educated, mobile, and frequently seeking new opportunities. Within this group lies huge potential, talent and often a desire to be involved in the community - after all, that's what makes a place feel like home.

Graffiti in Berlin,
Is the feeling mutual?Image: DWL. Harman

Getting involved

Newcomers to Berlin can, however, have a hard time trying to connect with Berliners and the German-speaking community. That's where GSBTB comes in.

Through their website, GSBTB offers a wide range of community-oriented opportunities for old and new Berliners, such as visiting the elderly in Neukölln, helping out at after-school kids' clubs, and cooking dinners in several homeless shelters. They also support refugees by organizing weekly cooking groups, English and German lessons, musical gatherings, and other activities.

After its battered and bruised recent past, Berlin will certainly never be a passive city. The sense of ownership and activism is inherent to this city - and is contagious for those who set up their tent here.

Berlin is a place of creative, political and liberal potential, forever unfolding, reconstructing and revealing itself in multi-faceted layers like the peeling paint on the walls of your favorite Berlin bar.

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