A refugee history lesson

Want to learn about a side of refugee life in Berlin overshadowed by the current crisis? Take the ultimate alternative tour: a refugee-led journey from Oranienplatz to Ohlauer Straße. We've got the insider's scoop on Refugee Voices right here.

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Photo by Bert Herden

A small but absorbed audience of expats, tourists and journalists is gathered on Oranienplatz, hanging onto their guides’ every word. Some take notes; others, photographs. The English-speaking group hops from O-Platz to Görlitzer Park to Ohlauer Straße. It is an unusual route for a guided tour. But even more unusual are the two guides: Moha is a political refugee from Somalia, and Mohamed Ali is what used to be called a “Lampedusa refugee” from Sudan. Both came to seek asylum in Germany in 2011, and since late October, they have been leading Refugee Voices “solidarity tours” through Berlin’s refugee rights movement.

The O-platz starting point makes sense: for nearly two years, the square was a famous refugee encampment and asylum rights stronghold, until it was disbanded by the authorities last March. It’s where both Moha and Mohamed protested, survived and thrived over two chilly winters, warmed by the solidarity of fellow refugees from across Africa but also the support of Berlin activists and local sympathisers.

That’s also where they met Lorna Cannon, a 25-year-old tour guide from the UK who taught Mohamed English and has been involved with English-language volunteer organisation Give Something Back To Berlin from the onset. “During my tours, I always got asked, ‘What’s going on with the refugees here?’ As they kept asking I thought it’d be better to get refugees themselves to answer the question.”

This particular tour might not be what they had in mind, though. Moha and Mohamed’s recollections of O-Platz and the occupied Gerhard-Hauptmann-Schule on Ohlauer Straße only emphasise the disconnect between them and the current wave of refugees. Besides a similar long, perilous and expensive trip to Europe (Moha paid € 18,000 to make it to Munich; Mohamed risked his life on a small boat from Libya to Lampedusa) – their situation has little in common with that of today’s Syrians, blessed with automatic granting of their asylum plea. There was no Willkommenskultur waving them in. As refugees of the ‘inferior’ economic sort, most of them, like Mohamed, got their applications turned down. They fought for rights and recognition.

Today’s Syrians have rights and, ironically, their numbers and ubiquity in the media have only overshadowed Moha and Mohamed’s struggle.

At times their bitterness shows, like when a passerby interrupts Moha’s rant against the German government: “Did you call them ‘Nazis’? Who exactly do you mean?” Commotion among the choir of loyal participants ensues, someone suggests that ‘Nazi’ doesn’t mean the same for a refugee from sub-Saharan Africa and a European, and the dispute is settled with a more consensual reformulation: “The system is racist.”

Obviously what makes this tour special is not so much the pair’s political statements, which are as one-sided as they are predictable, but rather their first-hand recollections as real-life protagonists of a Berlin saga few know much about or remember. Indeed, looking at the empty square today, it is hard to imagine that less than two years ago, O-platz was the bustling site of a ‘little Africa’-cum-Occupy camp. One loud Syrian refugee crisis later, the Lampedusa voices got lost in the cacophony of the current political debate.

And that’s what this tour does best: give a voice to those forgotten refugees. The group ends the tour in a project space on Oranienstraße with a merry African meal concocted and shared by other refugees and Give Something Back To Berlin volunteers – a reminder that survival goes on and that some Berliners get involved beyond Facebook groups. So spread the word and bring warm socks, as well as visiting friends and family. This is, after all, the ultimate Berlin alternative tour!

Refugee Voices tours, Saturdays 14-16