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Sep 21, 2022
He survived two civil wars, smugglers and state surveillance. Then he had an idea that has transformed tourism — at least, for those who meet him.
– with reporting by Safina Nabi from Berlin
On a sultry and humid afternoon in Berlin’s historic Spandau district, a young man addressed a group of rapt tourists while dotting his sweaty brow with a white handkerchief. In a city teeming with visitors at the peak of tourist season, this guided walk was something different.
Thirty-two-year-old Mohamad hails from a small city outside of Damascus, Syria, where, until 2012, he was an ordinary university student studying mathematics. The ensuing decade saw his life upended twice, by two civil wars, first in his own country and then in the nation where his family first fled.
Shortly after violence struck Syria, Mohamad’s family began patching together the money they needed to flee. Theirs was a long and dangerous journey to eventual safety, and required the family to split up for a time; at one point, Mohamad was forced to wait in the middle of an Egyptian desert with a group of other migrants until a smuggler in a minivan arrived to pick them up. The smuggler had planned for the vehicle to carry nine other people, including a pregnant woman, along with Mohamad, on what would be a 700-mile journey.
“We raised concerns about how would we even fit in this vehicle,” Mohamad explained recently, “But instead of responding, the driver started to thrash people with a baton.”
Eight years later, he still remembers the fear and humiliation of that moment.
As of the end of 2021, the United Nations estimated that 89.3 million people worldwide are displaced, including 27.1 million who are living as refugees. The influx of migrants into host countries, such as the United States and Germany, where Mohamad now resides, is not without controversy.
And that gave Mohamad an idea.
This tour is personal
In 2015, after meeting Berlin native and activist Lorna Cannon, Mohamad and Cannon co-founded Refugee Voices Tours on the basis of a provocative idea: that the curiosities of German history could be intertwined with the present realities of war-torn Syria — and, in fact, that there are notable similarities between the two.
Mohamad’s tours, which are held every Saturday, begin on the famous Wilhelmstrasse thoroughfare. Unfolding over the course of two hours, each guided walk includes a visit to the building that is now a museum called Topography of Terror, but during the Nazi regime was the headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.
At this stop, Mohamad talks not only about the Gestapo but also about the activities of the Syrian government leading up to the civil war. This topic is personal for Mohamad, who as a young man in his twenties was active on social media. His posts, which were critical of the government, brought unwanted attention to his family.
“It became the living purpose of the security chief of the area to capture us,” Mohamad explained. The sense of fear and terror that he and his family experienced as a result of this persecution was what forced them to leave their country as quickly as they did.
Mohamad guides each tour group to the Ministry of Finance, where he highlights the workers’ strike and uprising that took place in East Germany in June 1953. He also discusses the siege of Aleppo, a military operation conducted by Syrian forces and led by Hafez al-Assad in 1980; Mohamad highlights how these two very different events precipitated similar results: suffering for ordinary people.
The tour then pays a visit to Checkpoint Charlie, a passageway between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Here, Mohamad talks of the litany of challenges that Syrians and other refugees face, from checkpoints to closed borders. He also gives a brief glimpse of his own journey.
After his harrowing experience of being smuggled across an Egyptian desert, Mohamad’s family enjoyed a sense of stability in Libya, where they settled. He and his brother started a print shop, which they later converted into an advertising business. But just as their fortunes seemed to be improving, Libya erupted in what was that country’s second civil war in three years, turning Mohamad’s world upside down yet again. The family fled Libya on a fisherman’s boat and spent two days at sea before a Canadian-Indian oil ship rescued them, eventually bringing them to Sicily. From there they made their way to Berlin, where they applied for asylum. Even before receiving asylum, Mohamad enrolled at university in Berlin, at last continuing his disrupted education.
As the tour winds down, he gently mentions how, since early 2011, the Syrian conflict has uprooted an estimated 13 million people.
The final stop on the Refugee Voices Tour is the Gendarmenmarkt. Here, Mohamad highlights the French Huguenots who settled in Berlin in the 1600s. He says that, at first, it was not easy to design this comprehensive walking tour combining Berlin history with Syria’s but, over time, he discovered the synergy. Perhaps surprisingly, he said he especially enjoys discussing the Huguenots.
“It highlights that migration is not new to Europe,” he said, “and how it could be dealt with empathy.”
Refugee Voices Tours now has a team of tour guides who have led more than 6,000 visitors through the streets of Berlin to explore how both very old and fairly recent history can shed light on the challenges facing refugees today. Mohamad himself has personally led more than 350 tour groups.
As Mohamad’s tour came to a close on a recent Saturday, his group of tourists — all of them women from the U.S. — said they were deeply moved.
“The tour made me realize the extent of migration,” said Vanessa Underhill, a nursing student at the University of Minnesota, adding, “it will help me be more empathetic towards refugees.”
“I really thought it was impressive how he connected the two different stories about Germany’s history and the current state of refugees. It was just easier to understand the refugee crisis,” said another nursing student, Brean Samsen. “We really need such kind of initiatives, as it will help to build solidarity.”
Last year, Mohamad finished his bachelor’s degree. In October, he will start a master’s in social sciences at Berlin’s Humboldt University. He says that he will continue leading tours on the side.
Would you go on Mohamad’s tour of Berlin? Do you think a similar tour would work where you live?
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