With co-author Dalia Gazah
On the Refugees Voices Tour, Syrian-born Sayid (not his real name) starts his first story like this. ‘Small groups of workers gathered at first. They carried banners saying ‘we want to be free, not slaves.’ But more and more people gathered demanding a change of regime, until the government called in the military to suppress the uprising which on that day, resulted in over 500 deaths. This square is where it all happened.’
He’s talking about the series of bloody revolts in 1953 prompted by the increasingly stringent ‘Sovietization’ of the DDR. It is considered as a turning point in Germany’s modern history which consequently led to democracy. Pre-reunification it was commemorated as a victory and named ‘the Day of Unity.’
Then, whilst our tour group stands in grave silence in front of the former East German House of ministries looking at the graphic pictures of tanks ploughing through the crowds, Sayid starts on another story.
‘You’ve all heard of Arab spring, I suppose, but let me tell you how it started in Syria. Distraught parents marched to protest the secret police’s incarceration and torture of their teenage boys whose only crime had been to write graffiti saying ‘it’s your turn next, doctor’–an obvious message against president Bashar Al-Assad who once trained as an eye-doctor in London. Protesters joined them to demand a trial for the head of the Secret Police but the Syrian army came in and shot and killed many of them.’
But there is no victorious ‘democratic’ ending to this story. In Syria the civil uprising has gradually been transformed into a full scale civil war. Sayid and his colleagues have all lost loved ones to this war and their political is personal. Sayid’s own crime–and why he is here–was to film government violence and put it up on YouTube, after which he was put on the list of wanted terrorists.
His tour then takes us to the former headquarters of the Stasi where we learn about Alois Brunner, ex-Nazi and condemned war criminal who escaped Germany to live in Syria and who reportedly advised the Assad regime for thirty years on matters of effective torture and interrogation. Sayid tells us that Brunner died just seven years ago. The atrocities of Germany’s past, it seems, are still alive and well in Syria.
We meet up with Sayid and Lorna Cannon, founder of the non-profit tour, at a small authentic Syrian restaurant run by refugees–Mandi on Seestrasse, West Berlin. We order the signature dish of steaming, slow-cooked lamb accompanied by currant infused, fragrant sweet rice. It is served in portions large enough to share but the owners insist that for Lorna and Sayid’s guests, the food is a gift.
Lorna, by day a professional tour guide, explains that it was Sayid’s idea to use the history of Berlin to draw parallels to the situation in Syria. She says “the two places have quite similar histories in terms of war, destruction of the city, dictatorship and revolution and also the history of migration in Berlin, because Berlin is a place where people have migrated to and from for centuries, so it was easy for me to design the tour.”
Sayid is a refugee. But Lorna doesn’t work with refugees, in her own words she works with people who have become her friends. This distinction in language, they both feel, is an important one since the prevailing narrative perpetuated by Germany’s far right is to ‘other’ refugees as a subordinate, homogenous unit at the margins of society. ‘People do not ask why we are here,’ says Sayid ‘or even whether we want to be here.’
The Refugee Voices Tour ‘Why we are here’, represents the human face of those fleeing war-torn countries and Sayid tells his story, in his words, against the backdrop of our more familiar history. The tour aims to show that cross continent our experiences are strikingly similar, and for Lorna more importantly, it shows that despite our best intentions, when history repeats itself—under our very noses—at best we stand by, at worst we refuse help and even vilify those who need it.
For Sayid, Refugee Voice Tours also serves to keep the Syrian stories which scarred his own family, alive in the western psyche. He says, as ‘governments change their ideologies and their politics, it becomes less relevant and [the press] will just find excuses not to report it.’ Lorna adds, ‘people want another news story and it’s really sad because every day there are bombs being dropped in Syria but the news doesn’t cover it.’
With guiltily full bellies, we all sit in silence acknowledging this truth. As journalists, our job is to report what is new, what is news. But our reporting all too often leaves a humanitarian hole that valuable initiatives like Refugee Voices Tour can only try their best to fill.
(also cross posted at www.refugeevoicestour.org)