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Refugees in Germany: The taste of integration

August 26, 2020

Five years ago, Samer Serawan spent many long, cold nights in a muddy courtyard in Berlin, one of many Syrians who queued up to live in Germany. Now he has a successful restaurant that promotes integration.

Damascus´Aroma Restaurant Berlin Schöneberg
Image: DW/B. Knight

In 2015, Samer Serawan and his wife Arij realized that their life in Damascus was no longer possible. The import-export food company Samer ran, with its own chocolate milk factory, was "stolen" by one of the many armed groups that arose during the Syrian war, which by then was already four years old.

The only thing the 41-year-old will say now about that time is: "In Syria it's terrible, there are a lot of groups and everyone fights."

The couple came to Germany by the usual route, which was terrifying enough. They traveled across Turkey, where Samer eventually found a boat that would take them to Greece. From there they found a way to Berlin along what became known as the "Balkan route."

Read more: Five years on: How Germany's refugee policy has fared

"I tried to forget, but I always get a question that makes me remember," he says with a rueful laugh. The worst part was paying traffickers to get them on a boat to Greece: "You have to do a deal with the devil. We used everything, we walked, we used the boat, we used the train, the bus, everything."

Five years later, he remembers all this while sitting outside Damascus Aroma, the restaurant he and Arij opened last year in Berlin. It's 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and along a hot, noisy, traffic-choked street, but the outside tables are already all occupied. The food — stuffed peppers and vine leaves, grilled lamb and chicken, rice with raisins and various Middle Eastern spices — is what any Syrian family might cook at home.

Read more: European refugee policy: Are pushbacks at sea legal?

Damascus´ Aroma Restaurant Berlin Schöneberg
The couple's restaurant has done well — despite the lockdownImage: DW/B. Knight

'Terrible days'

Once they had finally made it to Berlin, Samer and Arij spent the winter of 2015-16 living in a hangar at the now-disused Tempelhof Airport, a vast hall the state government had rushed to turn into a refugee camp to cope with the growing daily influx into the city. Around 55,000 refugees arrived in Berlin in 2015, and another 17,000 the following year.

Small "rooms" with several bunk beds were made out of partitions in the hangar, which at one stage housed several hundred people. Even now, a small "village" of ready-made container homes still stands at the airfield.

Germany: The trial against Assad's torturers

Samer's days in that winter were spent at the LaGeSo, the city's health and social affairs authority, where the bureaucratic chaos created some of the defining images of Germany's "refugee crisis." Crowds of Syrians and Afghans, herded by security guards between metal barriers, were made to wait for as long as 16 hours at a time in a muddy courtyard from 3 a.m. Children slept in donated clothes, while food, blankets, and first aid were provided by charities. Berlin's already understaffed and underfunded state support system struggled to organize itself. "It was terrible days," says Samer.

The couple lived in two more homes over the next couple of years — one on the outskirts of the city, and another at the Refugio social project in Neukölln. That was where I met Samer and Arij, giving a walking tour of the district from refugees' point of view, an initiative launched by the Querstadtein organization.

Showing Berliners around their city

The tour offered Berliners a new view of their city: What does it look like if you're a new arrival? What places are important? By then, May 2016, the Syrians' presence in the German capital had become hard to overlook: There were new Arab supermarkets, new restaurants, and many shops along the heaving Sonnenallee now had Arabic writing on their fronts.

Berlin Neukölln refugee tour
In 2016, Samer and Arij gave tours of Neukölln for BerlinersImage: DW/B. Knight

It was also hard to miss the fact that a much-flogged concept had re-emerged in the German media: "Integration" was once again the main preoccupation for Berlin's political commentators, and hardly a day passed without some journalist or other offering earnest, furrow-browed fretting about how to "integrate" Syrians and Afghans into German society.

For Samer, the Neukölln walking tours showed him what the point of integration was. "In the tour, we met the people, showed them some places, and after that came the idea: Let me sit with these people, let us talk more," he says. "They have a lot of questions and the tour is too short."

"The problem," he realized, "is this word integration. For a long time it meant: Make people live like the Germans. But this is not integration. Integration is when we live together, when we find the shared points between us."

Starting over in Germany

So at Refugio, Samer and Arij began hosting their "storytelling workshops" — and cooked Syrian food to go with it. "You know, when I arrived here, a lot of organizations worked with the Syrian people, but I do the opposite — I work with the Europeans, with the Americans, with the people who live in this area."

He estimates, laughing again at the memory, that less than 10% of the people who came to those original workshops had met a refugee before. "So we started to talk about this issue: About refugees and integration. We got a lot of questions, we answered these questions," says Samer.

"We talk about the meaning of refugee, what they have in their mind about refugees, and we talked about the situation before and after we arrived here."

The concept of Damascus Aroma was born out of these workshops in 2019, and the restaurant is still going, despite the coronavirus pandemic. "It's not just a business," says Samer now. "The people come here as a customer for five minutes, and after that they start to be our friend. They feel that they are in our home."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight