The Syrians of Sonnenallee

Neukölln’s “Arab street” has become a destination for the Syrian community – and a potential goldmine for refugee entrepreneurs selling their countrymen a taste of home. But it isn't always easy being the new kids on the block.

Image for The Syrians of Sonnenallee
The Syrian restaurant Alagami. Photo by Sophie le Roux

Neukölln’s “Arab street” has become a destination for the Syrian community – and a potential goldmine for entrepreneurs selling refugees a taste of home.

As late as 2015, it seemed like a by-the book case of gentrification. Shabby chic bars, third-wave coffee spots, burger joints and even a fine dining restaurant had begun appearing alongside the falafel joints, halal butchers and shisha bars of Sonneneallee. The Neukölln thoroughfare – specifically, the kilometre-long stretch between Hermannplatz and Wildenbruchstraße – had been home to a large Lebanese immigrant community since the 1970s, and was one of ex-Neukölln mayor Heinz Buschkowsky’s favourite examples of failed integration in Berlin. But as part of the much sought-after “Kreuzkölln” neighbourhood, the street was becoming valuable real estate.

Two years and a “Wir schaffen das” later, Sonnenallee is changing in another direction. As Syrian refugees began arriving in Germany en masse, word spread about “the Arab street”. They commute, some from as far away as Brandenburg, to shop for groceries, eat familiar dishes, smoke, chat and search for work. The hipster incursions have stopped, replaced by shops and restaurants catering to the newcomers. Some are run by Syrians who have lived in Berlin for decades; others by refugees with business experience and start-up cash, who see in Sonnenallee an opportunity to hit the ground running in Germany.

One of the first Syrians to set up shop on Sonnenallee was Rafik Almadah. In 2013, he opened Bab Al-Hara, a narrow storefront that specialises in Damascus-style ice cream. The pounded concoction, made elastic by orchid root extract and Greek mastic, is sold on its own or combined with fruit, whipped cream and various kinds of candy in fanciful “cocktails”.

Almadah likes to wear a keffiyeh and caftan for press shots, but when we meet  him he sports a no-nonsense sweater and trousers. He explains that he’s lived in Berlin since 1996, when he moved here from Damascus. After 17 years of saving up from his job at the Italian gelateria Florenz in Hohenschönhausen, he was planning to return to his hometown to set up his own ice cream business. And then the war broke out. “I couldn’t go home, so I opened it here,” Almadah says wryly.

Rents in Neukölln were higher than in Hohenschönhausen, but Sonnenallee presented one major advantage: a pre-existing customer base. “Arabs all know about this kind of ice cream, but Germans don’t…” says Almadah. First patronised by Lebanese locals, his shop soon became inundated with his homesick countrymen, looking for both dessert and employment. Aside from Almadah and his wife, Bab Al-Hara’s staff now consists of three refugees – more in summer, when demand for his ice cream grows – all with permission to live and work in Germany. “They got visas, flats, free language school… they get within weeks what I got in two or three years,” says Almadah with no small hint of envy.

You can come here with a million euros, but that won’t be enough. You have to know the place, its laws; you have to have a plan.

Aside from his friendship with Hussam, the Lebanese-Palestinian owner of the wildly successful hummus restaurant Azzam, he doesn’t have much contact with Sonnenallee’s other restaurateurs. But he has noted the appearance of new Syrian establishments, slicker and flashier, clearly with a bit of money behind them. “You can come here with a million euros in your hand, but that won’t be enough,” he says. “You have to know the place, its laws; you have to have a plan.”

For Tamem Al-Sakka, a plan wasn’t the problem. From the moment he and his brothers Salim and Rami came to Berlin with their wives, children and parents two and a half years ago, he knew he wanted to resume the family baklava business the trio had run in their native Homs, before war drove them out. He was lucky enough to find a partner, a wealthy Syrian-German relation on his mother’s side who agreed to provide the venture capital and helped Al-Sakka score a lease for an empty storefront on Sonnenallee, formerly a Vietnamese-owned sushi bar. “We had to show them what we wanted to do – my wife is an architect, so she drew the plans for the space,” Al-Sakka recalls. “I guess they thought it was interesting.”The fact that he had been invited to make baklava for German President Joachim Gauck at a June 2015 speech encouraging compassion for Syrian refugees probably didn’t hurt.

A few weeks before opening in June 2016, they put up a sign: Konditerei Damaskus, a name suggested by Al-Sakka’s friends to convey Syrian-ness to Germans who didn’t know where Homs was. Word of mouth spread fast, and on opening day, he, Salim and Rami found themselves flooded with baklava lovers. “Everyone knows Syrians make the best sweets,” Al- Sakka offers as an explanation, and if his shop is any indication, he might be right. Damaskus sells every conceivable permutation of baklava as well as halawat el jubn (sweet cheese rolls); the high-end pastries, made from scratch with top-notch ingredients like imported Dutch butter and Turkish pistachios, retail for up to €30 a kilo.

The brothers hired four or five refugees as reinforcements, with more to come once the family opens a planned baklava factory in Tempelhof and, eventually, new stores elsewhere in Berlin. Since a December visit from RBB’s Abendschau, they’ve been getting more and more German customers. “They tell me, ‘Normally I wouldn’t come to this street,’” Al-Sakka says.

If he had the choice, he wouldn’t either. Al-Sakka, who commutes from his parents’ flat in Falkensee during the week and stays with his wife and children in Wittstock on weekends, says he finds Sonnenallee “too loud, too crowded… I could never live here!” He also bemoans its lack of cohesion – his attempts to reach out to other baklava shops, like the Lebanese-owned Um Kulthum, have mostly been met with silence.

Relations with the local Lebanese business community remain an ongoing issue for many of the new Syrians on the block – take the case of the schwarma shop Aldimashqi. Opened in July by a pair of newly arrived refugees with experience in poultry wholesaling, it offered what most considered Berlin’s only authentic Syrian-style schwarma: sliced chicken with garlic-yoghurt sauce, rolled in a grilled flatbread. Aldimashqi quickly became Sonnenallee’s biggest success, with constant queues spilling out the door… until five months later, when it abruptly shut its doors.

Its manager Ahmad, a childhood friend of the owners, met with us to explain the sudden closure. Shortly after coming to Germany from Damascus at the end of 2015, he says, his friends had made the acquaintance of the tenant of a business space on Sonnenallee, a Lebanese man who had previously operated it as a bakery. He offered the space to them as a sublet under an informal contract, charging over twice the actual rent, which they were able to afford thanks to money brought over from Syria and a line of credit taken out from friends in Germany. 

“They didn’t know any German, they didn’t understand how things work here – they thought it would be the same as back home,” Ahmad says regretfully. He had studied finance and worked for the Damascus branch of the United Nations’ Capital Development Fund before coming to Berlin three years ago, and when his friends asked him to manage their new venture, it didn’t take long for him to recognise the situation they were in.

He describes months of delays and evasions as he attempted to get Aldimashqi’s contract legitimised. To no avail: in December, the tenant presented him with a cancellation notice from the building administration, stating that the space was no longer registered as a business, that there were kitchen devices being improperly stored in the cellar and that there had been reports of Syrian refugees sleeping there (reports which had been investigated and discredited by the police, Ahmad says). He and the owners were still deciding what to do when, four days later, the tenant changed the locks to the building literally overnight.

Ahmad believes Aldimashqi’s success led the tenant’s relatives from neighbouring chicken shop Ris-A to pressure him into kicking his subletters out. “It was like a game between them and us.” He recalls spending the day frantically driving across Berlin to find an Arabic-speaking lawyer and a locksmith willing to work over the holidays, only to return to the restaurant and find the Lebanese tenant blocking the door “with his whole ‘family’”, he says, making it clear he means the term euphemistically.

The police were called and, with no official right to the space, the Aldimashqi crew was forced to stand down. It took two more weeks before they were allowed back inside to clear out their equipment. Ahmad now works at Aldimashqi’s second location in Wedding, opened in October. Another sublet with a proper contract and 12 employees, “Aldimashqi 2” attracts a healthy crowd, though it’s sparse compared to the throngs at the former Sonnenallee space. Still, Ahmad says they won’t be doing any more business on that street. “People there are spreading rumours, saying that the health department shut us down… We’re afraid for our reputation now.”

A representative from the building administration, which is based in Charlottenburg, refused to confirm or deny the details of Ahmad’s story, but did offer the following understatement: “It is well known by now that Sonnenallee has become a meeting point for the Syrian community. For some resident restaurateurs, this has brought good business, but it has also often brought unrest due to differing cultural interests.”

Image for The Syrians of Sonnenallee
Konditerei Damaskus. Photo by Sophie le Roux

The flow of Syrians into Germany may have slowed to a trickle over the last year, but its repercussions on Sonnenallee have not. Other recent additions include the restaurant Alagami, managed by refugees but operated remotely by a Syrian-German doctor from Wittenberg; and the baklava bakery Edlib, which bought out the Turkish-owned Toprak towards the end of last year. “I’ve heard a lot of Syrians, ones with real money, say they’re interested in investing in Berlin,” says Ahmad. While they might have plenty of resources and hungry, homesick customers, the intercultural challenges of “the Arab Street” might be trickier.

Image for The Syrians of Sonnenallee
Yasmin Alsham, freshly converted from its prior Lebanese incarnation. Photo by Sophie le Roux

Then again, it might not be. The newest Syrian restaurant on Sonnenallee is a schwarma shop called Yasmin Alsham. Opened on February 3, it’s the result of a partnership between two men: Syrian Manas Zidan, a successful textile business owner who fled Aleppo for Berlin three years ago, and Abbas Chahrour, a Berliner of 30 years whose family immigrated here from Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. “We’re both refugees,” Chahrour points out. The onetime hairdresser had opened a snack shop called Beirut Food in March 2016, but business was slow. So after a long chat with Zidan, one of his customers, he decided to rebrand. Now Zidan is financing the renovations, Chahrour runs the business side of things and an enthusiastic staff of Syrian newcomers oversee the new menu.

While Chahrour acknowledges some differences in the marinade and light-to-dark-meat ratio between Lebanese- and Syrian-style schawarma, he maintains that “the biggest difference between Lebanon and Syria is the colour of the flag.” Does it nonetheless bother him to be renouncing his country’s cuisine? “It’s supply and demand,” he shrugs. “I go along with the market.”

Yasmin Alsham, Sonnenallee 58

Bab Al-Hara, Sonnenallee 70

Konditerei Damaskus, Sonnenallee 93

Aldimashqi 2, Grüntaler Str. 1, Wedding

Check out our eating tour of Sonnenallee here.