During the Cold War, Sonnenallee was an unremarkable street with a checkpoint that drew attention only at Easter when West Berliners visited their relatives in the East. Nicknamed “Little Beirut,” it was known for its Lebanese stores and smoky cafes playing old Arab songs.
Then, in 2015, the street was given new life. An influx of refugees, mostly Syrians, turned Sonnenallee into one of the busiest streets in the capital. Today, crowds of shoppers push past stalls selling fruit and vegetables. Two confectioneries mark the Syrian presence, “Green Idlib” at the northwestern end and “Damascus” to the southeast. “Little Beirut” became known as “Arab Street.”
Berlin has had an Arab population since 1960, when then West Germany invited in thousands of Moroccans as “guest workers” to help rebuild the country’s post-war economy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian-Lebanese migrants arrived, fleeing Lebanon’s civil war. Living in parallel societies, many of these Arab migrants barely integrated with their German neighbours. Unemployment rates among men are high and a third of the female population lives on welfare, according to government data.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to take in more than one million migrants brought the challenges of integration to the fore and upended German politics. Anti-immigrant sentiment propelled the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland to third in the 2017 election. Yet it is earlier generations of Arab migrants in places like Sonnenallee who often show the greatest resentment to the newcomers, “more than Germans,” said Rasha Alkhadra, a 42-year-old YouTube blogger from Syria.
Of the nearly 695,000 migrants who applied for asylum in Germany in 2016, more than 62 percent received refugee status or humanitarian protection, which enabled them to work and receive welfare benefits, according to data from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Among applicants from Syria, the figure was higher, at around 97 percent.
In contrast, 10 years earlier less than seven percent of asylum applicants in Germany received refugee status. A 2016 study by Bielefeld University found more than half of established migrants in Germany believe the newcomers should settle for less.
“The government opened new horizons for the refugees, horizons which we did not see,” said Houda Zeidan, 46, a Palestinian-Syrian who has lived in Berlin for 25 years and works as a nurse caring for the elderly. Zeidan said she came to Germany to join her husband. She said she wasn’t allowed to work for three years, wasn’t entitled to welfare benefits and, unlike today’s arrivals, had to pay for German language classes. “When I saw what they received, I wished I was a refugee,” she said.
“MAYBE LIFE WAS VERY HARSH”
Among those arriving on Sonnenallee was 34-year-old Ammar Kassem, who had made a living in Damascus selling poultry to restaurants and shops. He left Syria in September 2015 and arrived in Germany a month later, having travelled through Turkey, Greece and eastern Europe.
In the summer of 2016, Kassem opened a restaurant selling Shawarma and other Levantine food. Today, Kassem’s restaurant, Aldimashqi, is one of Sonnenallee’s most popular haunts. Syrian waiters scuttle between the grilled meat stands and the packed tables. Customers stand in line to take food away.
But business wasn’t always so good. When a Syrian folk band performed to celebrate the restaurant’s opening, Kassem recalled, neighbours complained to the police about the noise. Arab gangs demanded protection money, he said. He refused to pay. Then, in October 2016, masked men threatened his staff.
Several residents corroborated his story. One said it was impossible for newcomers to open a business on Sonnenallee without the “unofficial approval of older, established migrants.” Berlin police said they had no record of an incident at Aldimashqi, but added not all incidents are put in a report.
“I realized I needed someone to support and protect me in the market,” Kassem said.
An old Lebanese family helped him find a new location for his restaurant and became a partner in the now thriving business.
Ahmad Rezzou, 32, worked as a cashier at Aldimashqi for more than a year. He said he could tell whether customers were old or new migrants from the way they placed their orders. Syrians tended to be friendlier. “Maybe life here was very harsh to them (old migrants) so they became like this,” he mused. In Damascus, Rezzou had studied to become an agricultural engineer before fleeing his homeland in 2015.
On Sonnenallee, one of the older generation of migrants, Mansour Azzam, says he has become something of a peacemaker. Locals call him Hajji, a name given to older people who have visited Mecca for the Haj. It was Azzam who helped restaurant owner Kassem when he was looking for new premises.
Azzam was born 50 years ago in Ain Al Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, close to the coastal city of Saida. Aged 12, he said he became a fighter for the Palestinian cause. He made his way to Germany in 1996, claiming the status of a political refugee.
Nowadays he lives in an apartment in Sonnenallee, above a Middle Eastern grocery and restaurant he owns. Azzam’s grocery offers everything from Lebanese haloumi cheese to sour Syrian pickles. The restaurant is busy with Germans and Arabs.
In his living room, Azzam served coffee, Syrian confectionary and fruit on a Damascene coffee table. On the TV, an Arab channel broadcast news from Syria’s war.
“When we came here, we didn’t have anything. I opened businesses that were needed. I started with a bakery for Arabic bread. I was never a merchant before, I spent all my life as a guerilla carrying my gun and sitting in the camp,” said Azzam.
When the first Syrian refugees began reaching Berlin, Azzam said there was “confusion and conflict.” Established shop owners and Syrians with new businesses were fighting one another. Azzam said he established a committee of shop owners to resolve problems. They meet once a month and communicate in between on a Whatsapp group.
Now, he is working on establishing a committee for Arab restaurants after more than a dozen Syrian restaurants opened in the past two years. “I told them that if we don’t work together, we will all lose.”
Azzam’s business has expanded with the advent of refugees who have become a big part of his staff as well as his customers. More than half of his current 235 employees come from Syria.
MEMORIES OF HOME
Azzam’s pragmatic approach is rare.
Older Arab Muslim migrants complain the newcomers are “too liberal.” In 2009, more than 80 percent of Muslim migrants from the Middle East regarded themselves as “very religious” or “true believers,” according to government data.
Raed Saleh, a Palestinian-German Social Democrat politician in Berlin, said new and old Arab migrants had very different perceptions of their homelands. “Those who have been living in Germany for 40 years and could only visit their countries of origin every two years for 15 days have a very different idea of that country than those who have just left,” said Saleh.
Mohammad Altaweel, a Lebanese migrant who has lived in Berlin for four decades and has a publishing house in its Neukoelln district, expressed surprise that Syrian women were very different from those depicted in Bab Alhara, a popular Syrian television drama set in the early 1900s. In the TV drama, the women cover their faces and tend to the home.
“There are many gays and lesbians among the new arrivals. We didn’t have this in our community before. We wouldn’t even hear of this,” he said.
Altaweel came to West Germany in 1975, fleeing Lebanon’s civil war, and studied journalism. He told how he started from scratch as a student and then as a business owner.
“Syrians were treated way differently from us when we arrived. Syrians are allowed to study here at the government expense, as long as they want…They were given residencies. When we came here, they didn’t give us residencies. Do you know much I suffered until I got mine?”
Zeidan, the nurse, sipped coffee in a Turkish café in the nearby district of Kreuzberg where she lives. After more than two decades in Berlin, she is fluent in German but says she would never brag, “I speak German well.”
“I pay more than a third of my income for them to live. Many Germans would envy the refugees for their status,” she said, her short hair tied in a ponytail and her jeans tucked into long boots. “The Lebanese when they came here did not receive the rights given to the refugees today.”
Andreas Germershausen, integration commissioner in Berlin’s senate, said Germany had learned from past mistakes and policies were now more focused on integration. A law that came into force in 2005 sought to encourage this by establishing courses to teach foreigners Germany’s language, history and culture.
“Berlin has learned from the older times,” he said.
He said resentment comes not only from Arabs but from other groups such as Russians, who came to Germany in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“They tell me two things: the newcomers have it much easier than we did, and for us this comes very late,” he said.
But making life more difficult for the newcomers is no solution, Germershausen said. “If we make it more difficult for current migrants to access the job market, we are producing dynamite and then we didn’t learn from the earlier mistakes.”