See Berlin through new eyes!

Guided tour with Hamdi Kassar: The Syrian and other refugees present their Berlin.

Hamdi Kassar
Anika Büssemeier

Germany. There was a time when Hamdi Kassar regularly climbed to the top of Mt. Qasyun outside Damascus. From there he was able to enjoy the view of the city from above: the hustle-and-bustle, the mosques, the old town with its souks and narrow alleyways. In Berlin it took him a while to find a similar place, the hill in Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg district.

However, he starts this warm Sunday in late summer in Neukölln district, where he has an appointment with a group of Berliners and visitors to the capital in Karl Marx Strasse. “Hi, I’m Hamdi”, the 27-year-old in the blue shirt and sneakers greets his guests in English. “I must warn you,” he says and with a smile adjusts his glasses, “that my mother used to say: ‘Hamdi talks like a waterfall’.”

Karl Marx Strasse reminds me a lot of Damascus.

Hamdi Kassar

The guided tours called “Refugees show their Berlin” are organized by the Verein Querstadtein association, which also offers tours led by homeless persons. The Federal Agency for Civic Education is helping fund the project. No one expects the guided tour with Hamdi will include the usual tourist sights. He and seven other refugees take their tour participants to places that have a special meaning for them and which come to mind first

It may initially seem surprising that for Hamdi Karl Marx Strasse, with its heavy traffic, snack bars and dusty construction sites, is precisely such a place. But it is here that he feels most homesick – and at the same time experiences a kind of solace. “The cobblestones, the mixture of old and new buildings. This area reminds me so very strongly of Damascus,” Hamdi says while leading us into a side-street.

Selfies taken while fleeing

The tour guide also tells the participants his own personal story. How, despite the war, he initially did not want to leave Syria, but then fled after all, with no real destination in mind, “simply in the hope of finding a peaceful place”. How in Turkey he got into a frighteningly over-crowded inflatable boat heading for Greece, how he crossed Hungary fearing for his life, and in summer 2015 reached Berlin. More than one in ten Syrian refugees now live in Germany, but Hamdi Kassar’s family and his fiancée are still in Damascus.

 

He shows round selfies taken while fleeing: The young unshaven man seems exhausted, but optimistic. Most Syrians know his face. “Many knew me as the anchor for the breakfast TV show ‘Good Morning Damascus’ and as a reporter for Syrian national TV,” he says, as we all arrive in Sonnenallee.

Participants from Neukölln

A Syrian snack bar, an Arab supermarket, a refugee hostel: Hamdi stops at countless places and explains to us how important Sonnenallee is for him and his compatriots. Refugees often call it “Arab Street” as it is home to many Lebanese and Syrian businesses.

Hamdi Kassar loves the guided tours. They are important to him as a way of learning German and swapping experiences. “I view my own district in a completely different way, now,” one participant says, who herself lives in Neukölln. Her parents, who have come from Würzburg to visit her, brought her along on the tour. 

Despite enjoying guiding the tours, Hamdi remains faithful to his real profession. He works at the Federal Press Office and is doing an internship with Deutsche Welle’s Arabic desk. He has already interviewed Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it will take some time, he says, before his knowledge of German is good enough to enable him to work as a journalist in Germany.

“It’s not easy finding your feet in a new society,” Hamdi says shortly before we say goodbye. And it starts with the food and drink. “I even tried mulled wine. But currywurst, that’s simply one step too far.”

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