The city of Derik in Kurdish northern Syria is struggling to overcome eight years of war. It's getting help from an unlikely source: the multicultural, hipster Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg.
Some 3,850 kilometers (2,392 miles) separate Kreuzberg in southern Berlin from Derik in the northeastern tip of Syria, and as the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year on March 15, the situations of the two communities may seem galaxies apart.
Whereas the biggest worry of the traditionally alternative-lifestyle and Turkish neighborhood in the German capital is gentrification, the people of 26,000-strong, majority Kurdish-Assyrian city are concerned with keeping the lights and water on — and resisting pressure from Turkey, Iraq, the Assad regime and the remnants of the "Islamic State" (IS) movement.
But there's much more connecting Kreuzberg and Derik than initially appears. And thanks to a citizens' initiative in Berlin, the two places are now officially twinned. Kreuzberg may be known for its Turkish community, but no one knows how many of the Turkish nationals are actually Kurds.
The hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg is home to many Turkish nationals — some of whom are Kurds
Günter Kleff, one of the founders of the initiative, says that Derik was selected because the Berliners wanted to support a group often forgotten by politicians and the media.
"One main idea is to show a certain solidarity with the city," Kleff told DW. "These are the people who bore the main burden of the fight against IS. We have them to thank for the fact that IS has practically been defeated."
Seven hundred people who died fighting Islamist militant terror are buried in Derick's "Martyrs Cemetery." And recovering from this degree of loss is only one of the challenges faced by this unusual community.
A multicultural, progressive Syrian town
In many respects, Kleff says, Derik confounds the usual stereotypes about the Middle East. It is surprisingly multicultural, and Muslims and Christians coexist side by side. The city is governed by democratically elected municipal councilors. It has two co-mayors, who, by statute, must be a man and a woman.
"Derik is known for its multiculturalism," Derik City Council Co-President Sahed Osman Mohamad told DW. "Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Syrians, Chaldean Christians and Armenians live together here. They're represented on the city council and in the city administration."
The city is controlled by Kurdish forces and enjoys relative autonomy, but it is surrounded by potential threats. Derik is only five kilometers from the Turkish border and only 10 kilometers from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which would like to subsume it. And to the south are the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"They're completely isolated politically," Kleff says. "Turkey considers them terrorists because they're Kurds and admittedly sympathize to an extent with the [banned Kurdish Workers' Party] PKK. And the Assad regime, of course, wants to get rid of them because Assad would like to re-establish complete domination."
Kleff — a pensioner formerly employed in integrating Turkish migrants to Berlin — visited Derik in October 2018 as part of a small delegation to sign an initial partnership agreement. His descriptions of the political situation tally with media reports. Late last December, for instance, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Syria's Kurds were "scared to death" of being squeezed between Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the US announced it would withdraw its forces from Syria.
€10,000 for a greener city
Kleff acknowledges that the effect of twinning Kreuzberg and Derik is largely "symbolic" but hopes that the two communities' relationship will be the beginning of greater recognition for Kurdish affairs in Europe and the world. He also stresses that his initiative is not another case of relatively wealthy Europeans swooping in to dole out aid to recipients without a say of their own.
The first project the Kreuzberg group is helping to fund in Derik is re-greening a part of the town severely affected by Turkey's restriction of the water supply from the Euphrates River to northern Syria. The project was launched after authorities and residents requested this specific form of aid.
"We've received €10,000 ($11,300) from the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district to plant trees in Derik," says Mohamad. "Depending on the weather, we'll be planting them this spring."
Despite the damage done to the city by the civil war, the people of Derik are astonishingly ecologically minded. That's another point of convergence between the city and its traditionally left-wing twin district in Berlin.
A return visit in May or June
A delegation from Derik hopes to come to Kreuzberg later this spring or early summer. But as Kleff explains, the return visit is anything but a sure thing.
The Syrians need to obtain passports, despite the hostility of the central government in Damascus, to travel to the West, and the route from Derik to Berlin involves a boat trip and then a car ride to the airport in Irbil in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
If the visit does come to pass, it will be a further small step toward ending the isolation of Derik and indeed the entire majority-Kurdish north of Syria, an area rich in oil but poor in opportunities to exploit its natural resources.
Kleff says his biggest hope is that the people of Northern Syria can gain more of a voice in determining their own destiny. And he believes that communities like Derik can serve as an alternative role model for an entire region mired in deadly conflict for eight long years.
Sahed Osman Mohamad was interviewed by Aref Gabeau from DW's Arabic department.