Two Syrian brothers host a walking tour in Berlin with an aim to inform Germans about what it means to be a Syrian fleeing Assad, and how similar it is to the Nazi regime in pre-World War II Germany.
Two Syrian brothers, Mohammad and Nebras, are refugees in Berlin. In their free time they take people on walking tours of the city's historic landmarks, drawing comparisons between its Nazi-era past and what Syrians are currently enduring under the regime of Bashar al Assad.
The brothers also stay abreast of other international news. As the refugee crisis on the Poland-Belarus border dominated the news cycle last week, Nebras and Mohammed could relate to the difficulties faced by thousands of stranded refugees amid the harsh weather conditions.
In 2013, they were among a flock of refugees fleeing the Syrian war. After gaining asylum in Germany, they decided to tell their story. They wanted to inform locals in Berlin about the circumstances that compelled them to abandon everything they had in Damascus and become refugees in a foreign land.
Since then, every Saturday afternoon, they lead walking tours of Berlin's once-wartorn neighbourhoods. Through personal anecdotes and stories, the two brothers draw parallels between the Syria of today and the 1940s Germany.
Those old Berlin neighbourhoods have been restored, but the government has made a conscious effort to keep the remnants of the past as a reminder. There's a word for this type of remembrance in German, 'Vergangenheitbewaltigung'. It refers to the constant struggle of coming to terms with a very difficult past. This includes coming to terms with the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the Nazi Party, which ruled Germany in the years leading to the Second World War.
It’s a unique walking tour that attracts not only thousands of tourists who flock to Berlin annually, but also Germans and local Berliners. For many of these locals, Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are their new neighbours.
The walking tour starts at the Platz des Volkaufstandes, located in front of the Finance Ministry. Its name translates as ´the place of the popular uprising.´ This was the site of one of the first protests against the East German Communist Government in June 1953, in which nearly 70 people were shot dead. In the aftermath, around 15,000 were arrested and given long-term prison sentences.
Mohammed draws parallels between that incident in Germany and the current political uprisings against President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria. He also sees a connection to the uprisings in the 1980s during the reign of Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the current President of Syria.
“On the tour, I jokingly refer to Syria as the Assad family business,” Mohammed quips.
The 30-year-old Mohammed comes from a small town outside Damascus, “I was studying Mathematics at university when the first signs of the larger Syrian civil war began. I left university in 2012 and soon the Syrian military came knocking to draft me. I had to leave Syria to not fight for Assad,” says Mohammed.
He arrived in Germany in 2013 and began volunteering as a tour guide soon after. This walking tour is personal to him, and he's curated it with interesting talking points, both historical and topical.
“I try to explain how Syria went from a series of peaceful protests to an international proxy war,” says Mohammed.
As the tour moves on we arrive at a building aptly named the Topography of Terror. It’s a major tourist hotspot, right next to the remnants of the old Berlin Wall.
Here the Nazis catalogued people - mainly Jews - and sent them off to concentration camps. One of the architects of that system was a man called Alois Brunner.
The story of Brunner's rise to power in the Nazi regime is interesting - but how it connects with modern-day Syria is far more compelling.
Brunner worked in the office responsible for the forced deportation of Jews from Vienna. As a reward for good job performance, the Nazis transferred him to Berlin. There he worked at the SS Reich Security Main Office, which is now the Topography of Terror and part of Mohammed's walking tour.
Brunner was known for his brutal torture methods. According to some accounts, he personally conducted interrogations so brutal that his office walls were covered in blood spatter and bullet holes. After the Second World War ended Brunner managed to evade capture. In 1954 he fled Germany, first to Rome and then Egypt before ending up in Syria, where he is said to have died in 2001.
According to Mohammed, it is believed that Brunner struck up a relationship with the Syrian government and helped them with their intelligence. Supposedly he brought his torture methods with him from Germany, which Syrian regimes then used to quash several political uprisings.
There were several sightings of Brunner in Damascus through the decades. He appeared to enjoy life in the city as he visited hotels and even dined with acquaintances in public.
Many on Mohammad's walking tour are dumbstruck by the notion of a former high-ranking Nazi officer enjoying life in exile under the protection of Syria’s government. That it’s not common knowledge in Germany is just as baffling to them.
Felix, who lives and works in Berlin, is on this tour with his girlfriend and their dog. “I had no idea of all this. I'm shocked. This is absolutely appalling stuff,” he says.
“We know that the Syrian regime is authoritative and brutal in quashing protests, but it being directly linked with the former Nazi regime, and how its links go back several decades, is unbelievable,” he adds.
Mohammad explains to his audience how the Syrian regime, mirroring both the Nazis and Stasi in East Germany, initially allowed protests but documented those in attendance. They then went around arresting everyone – usually in the hundreds. Many were never heard from again.
Refugee Voice Tours in Berlin provides a historical perspective to the crimes of the Assad regime, often drawing parallels with Germany's dark past. To date, they have taken over 10,000 people from nearly 85 different countries on walking tours. The size of the Saturday tour groups increases only slightly each week, but as Mohammad puts it, for those who do attend, “their perspective and understanding broadens a lot more.”