Two Syrian brothers organize a walking tour of Berlin with the aim of educating Germans about what it means to be a Syrian fleeing Assad and how similar it is to Germany’s pre-WWII Nazi regime.
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, making comparisons between its Nazi-era past and what Syrians are going through today under Bashar al-Assad.
The brothers also keep abreast of other international news. As the refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border dominated the news cycle last week, Nebras and Mohammed could understand the hardships faced by thousands of refugees stranded in harsh weather conditions.
In 2013, they were part of a flock of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. After being granted asylum in Germany, they decided to tell their story. They wanted to inform the people of Berlin of the circumstances which had forced them to abandon everything they had in Damascus and become refugees in a foreign country.
Since then, every Saturday afternoon, they have organized walking tours of neighborhoods once ravaged by war. Through anecdotes and personal accounts, the two brothers draw parallels between the Syria of today and the Germany of the 1940s.
These old parts of Berlin have been restored, but the government has made a conscious effort to keep the vestiges of the past in memory. There is a word for this type of memory in German, “Vergangenheitbewaltigung”. It refers to the constant struggle to come to terms with a very difficult past. This includes coming to terms with the widespread human rights violations perpetrated by the Nazi Party, which ruled Germany in the years leading up to World War II.
It is a unique walking tour that attracts not only the thousands of tourists who flock to Berlin each year, but also local Germans and Berliners. For many of these residents, the Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are their new neighbors.
The walking tour starts at Platz des Volkaufstandes, located opposite the Ministry of Finance. Its name translates to “the place of popular uprising”. It was the site of one of the first protests against the Communist East German government in June 1953, in which nearly 70 people were shot dead. In the process, around 15,000 people were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.
Mohammed draws parallels between this incident in Germany and the current political uprisings against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. He also sees a connection to the uprisings of the 1980s under the reign of Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president.
“On the tour, I jokingly refer to Syria as the Assad family business,” jokes Mohammed.
Mohammed, 30, comes from a small town outside Damascus: “I was studying mathematics at university when the first signs of the Syrian civil war started. I left university in 2012 and soon the Syrian army came to pick me up. I had to leave Syria so as not to fight for Assad, ”says Mohammed.
He arrived in Germany in 2013 and started volunteering as a tour guide soon after. This walking tour is personal to him and he has organized it with interesting talking points, both historical and current.
“I’m trying to explain how Syria went from a series of peaceful protests to an international proxy war,” says Mohammed.
As the tour progresses, we come to a building aptly named the Topography of Terror. It is a tourist hotspot, right next to the remains of the old Berlin Wall.
Here the Nazis cataloged people – mostly Jews – and sent them to concentration camps. One of the architects of this system was a man called Alois Brunner.
The story of Brunner’s rise to power under the Nazi regime is interesting, but his connection to today’s Syria is far more compelling.
Brunner worked in the office responsible for the forced deportation of Jews from Vienna. As a reward for good performance at work, the Nazis transferred him to Berlin. There he worked at the main security office of the SS Reich, which is now the Topography of Terror and is 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 the walls of his office were covered in blood splatter and bullet holes. After the end of World War II, Brunner managed to escape capture. In 1954, he fled Germany, first to Rome and then to Egypt before ending up in Syria, where he would have died in 2001.
According to Mohammed, Brunner is believed to have formed a relationship with the Syrian government and helped them with their intelligence. He reportedly brought his torture methods with him from Germany, which the Syrian regimes then used to crush several political uprisings.
There have been several Brunner sightings in Damascus over the decades. He seemed to enjoy city life as he visited hotels and even dined with acquaintances in public.
Many participants in Mohammad’s walking tour are stunned by the idea of a high-ranking former Nazi officer enjoying life in exile under the protection of the Syrian government. Equally baffling to them is that this is not common knowledge in Germany.
Felix, who lives and works in Berlin, is on tour with his girlfriend and their dog. “I had no idea of any of this. I’m shocked. It is an absolutely dreadful thing, ”he said.
“We know that the Syrian regime is authoritative and brutal in suppressing protests, but it is directly linked to the former Nazi regime, and how its ties go back decades, it is incredible,” he added. .
Mohammad explains to his audience how the Syrian regime, like the Nazis and the Stasi in East Germany, initially authorized the protests but documented those present. They then went to arrest everyone – usually in the hundreds. Many never heard from again.
Refugee Voice Tours in Berlin offer a historical perspective on the crimes of the Assad regime, often drawing parallels to 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 only increases slightly each week, but as Mohammad says, for those who attend, “their perspective and understanding widens much more.”
Source: TRT World