BERLIN (AP) — When city guide Firas Zakri takes you on a tour of Berlin, don’t expect to see the Brandenburg Gate, the city’s famous TV tower or other well-known landmarks of the German capital.
To begin with, Zakri doesn’t even meet the groups he guides in Berlin’s touristy Mitte district. Instead, his starting point is a shady street corner in a bustling immigrant neighborhood. Here, standing between gritty pawn shops and greasy kebab stores, the 34-year-old Syrian refugee introduces you to his own, very personal version of Berlin.
Zakri is one of four refugee guides with “querstadtein,” or “cross-city,” a nonprofit that initially started off offering tours of Berlin led by formerly homeless people. This year, reacting to the large number of migrants who came to Germany in 2015, the group added asylum seekers to its team and created a new refugee tour that features refugee shelters, Syrian restaurants and other relevant sights.
“Our goal was to give the refugees a face and personalize them — especially in times where so many people are only talking about the ‘floods’ or ‘waves’ of refugees,” Tilmann Hoeffken, a project manager with “querstadtein,” said.
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Like the homeless, refugees often can be isolated from other city-dwellers, a gap the organization is trying to bridge by bringing together people who cross paths without connecting, Hoeffken said.
The tours also try to change perspectives by asking participants to see Berlin through the eyes of its newcomers. School classes and companies, not just tourists, have signed up. The excursions have been so popular that “querstadtein” is planning to hire more refugee guides, Hoeffken said.
Zakri arrived in Germany in June 2015 as one of the 890,000 asylum seekers last year who came looking for safety from war and hardship in countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
He doesn’t speak much German, but when it comes to introducing tour groups to the Berlin places that matter to asylum-seekers, he’s already an expert.
“I want to open other people’s eyes and show them who we refugees really are,” said Zakri, who conducts his tours in English.
While shepherding an international group of designers, artists and students around recently, Zakri showed them some of the most important hot spots for refugees in the city: good Syrian restaurants.
“Of course, the Turkish immigrants have been selling kebab in this city for a long time,” Zakri says with a cheeky smile. “But it’s simply not as good as the real Syrian kebab.”
The new restaurants and bakeries that have popped up across the immigrant neighborhood of Neukoelln are a top destination for the thousands of homesick Syrian asylum seekers currently living on a diet of bland, mass-produced meals in Berlin’s refugee shelters.
And so Zakri takes the tourists to Shaam Restaurant, where young men are sitting around tables wolfing down plates of hummus topped with chickpeas, tahini and plenty of olive oil, or eating rolled-up pita sandwiches stuffed with chicken kebab, tomatoes and parsley.
There’s no time for the tourists to sit down for a meal because Zakri has already moved on to the next stop: a former department store that was turned into a makeshift shelter for hundreds of asylum seekers. Then, the group turns to a litter-strewn back street where Zakri takes a break to talk about himself and what it means being a refugee.
Standing in the rain under old Linden trees, Zakri pulls out laminated photos showing his old home city of Aleppo. He holds up pictures of the city’s ancient skyline and merchants selling ornamented copper pots at a market that was famous before it was devastated by cluster bombs and rockets.
“I, too, once had a normal life,” Zakri tells the group. “I worked as an English teacher, my wife was a banker, and we have a little boy, a home. We had a good life.”
Now, after five years of a murderous war in Syria, his home is destroyed. His wife and son have been unable to obtain German visas and are stuck with relatives in Dubai.
Zakri, pulling up a shoulder of his blue-and-grey parka to shield him from the freezing air, adds that after more than a year in Germany, his own asylum request hasn’t been processed yet. Becoming a refugee is not a choice anyone makes voluntarily, he says, and it upsets him when migrants get typecast as terrorists or freeloaders.
Anti-migrant sentiment has been on the rise across Europe and in Germany, especially after two attacks in July that were carried out by asylum seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group. Populist parties campaigning on anti-Muslim platforms have seen their support sharply increasing in some parts of Germany.
“I’m grateful that I’m here,” Zakri says. “But if I could I would go back home tonight.”
He then pulls out little white papers printed with Arabic words and distributes them among the members of the tour group. He asks them to look for the same words on the colorful displays of the Halal butchers, shisha lounges and storefront mosques dotting Sonnenallee, Berlin’s most Arabic street.
While the tourists struggle with their language cards, Zakri tells them that’s this is exactly how he felt when he first arrived in Germany.
“I didn’t know what a ‘Strasse’ was and what’s an ‘Allee,'” Zakri says, referring to the German words for ‘street’ and ‘avenue.’ He adds that it took him two weeks to be able to decipher the word describing his current asylum status: Aufenthaltsgestattung.
“I’m giving you the experience, only the other way round, to give you the feeling how difficult and hard it is to cope with the new situation” as a refugee, he says.
For some of the tour participants, the refugee tour was an eye-opener — just like Zakri had promised at the start.
“When you listen to some of these stories, you understand that you don’t have problems, that your own life is very easy,” said Anacarolina Falcao, a 25-year-old Brazilian.