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Berlin refugee guides show off cultural riches from home

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Berlin refugee guides show off cultural riches from home

Refugees from Iraq and Syria introduce new arrivals to the German capital's museums.
29 June 2016
Museum guide Kefah, a refugee herself, hopes to inspire fellow newcomers by showing them the cultural riches hidden in Berlin's state museums.

BERLIN, Germany – A hush falls over the small group of visitors as it enters the cool, lofty hall filled with ancient stones.

Museum guide Kefah Ali Deeb studies their expressions closely as they gaze at Syrian statues of lions, birds, scorpions and mysterious goddesses. This, she says, is the stop on her tour of Berlin’s Museum of the Ancient Near East that usually arouses the strongest response.

“It’s very sensitive for us Syrians,” said Kefah, 34, a guide with Multaka, Arabic for “meeting point”, a project making Berlin’s state museums more accessible to refugees. “The first time they see all these objects they feel sad, or even angry. They say these pieces belong to our heritage and so they should be there in our country.”

However, many in Kefah’s tour group seem glad to see the artefacts, some of which date from the sixth millennium BCE, kept safe from the same destruction they themselves have fled.

“I wanted to see what objects from our history they have here,” said visitor Ahmad Moutad, 27, who left his home in Damascus 18 months ago. “It's quite sad to see the artefacts from Syria kept here and not there. But of course there's a war on there, here the objects are much safer.”

Kefah, herself a refugee, is one of 19 Syrian and Iraqi guides helping to throw open the doors of the imposing buildings on Museum Island, a UNESCO world heritage site in Berlin’s historic centre. When the project was launched in December, initiators wanted to offer not just tours, but also a meeting place for people with shared experiences of flight.

“It’s a very important space for Syrians and others to meet each other,” said Kefah. “After the tour we often walk in the gardens outside and talk about Syria, about life here in Germany. The newcomers are very thankful that this country didn’t only give shelter to them, it opened museums, too. All countries that have refugees should do the same because it really helps with integration.”

Stefan Weber, the initiator of the Multaka project and director of the Museum of Islamic Art, said integration takes place gradually, when people feel they are respected.

“Respect in this case is a reciprocal process of appreciation of each others' cultural heritage.”

“The newcomers are very thankful that this country didn’t only open shelters – it opened museums, too.”

Kefah said that, for people who have fled conflict, the tours could play a psychological role in helping them settle into their new homes. “People who fled the war are often shy,” she explained.

“They are unsure about their place here in Germany. But when we do this tour and they start to know more about their heritage, they start to rebuild this trust in themselves. It’s very connected with integration. No one can integrate if they aren’t confident.”

Kefah herself, a professional writer and artist, knows how difficult it can be to find a way in. Back home in Syria, she used to spend hours drawing the statues in the gardens of the National Museum in Damascus. When she arrived in Berlin nearly two years ago, she immediately asked where she could do the same.

Friends told her about the Pergamon complex, home to painstaking reconstructions of the ancient Greek Pergamon Altar and the blue-tiled Ishtar Gate, which once formed part of the entrance to the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon in modern Iraq. However, when she went to visit the treasures, Kefah could not pluck up the courage to go in.

“I used to walk around Museum Island a lot but I never went into any of the buildings,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure whether I was allowed in there. When friends asked me to get involved with Multaka, I thought it was such an amazing idea because I thought maybe other newcomers had felt the same. This project makes it easy.”

“When friends asked me to get involved with Multaka, I thought it was such an amazing idea.”

It is hoped that the weekly tours give refugees not only insights into their own heritage, but also into the twists and turns of Germany’s dark past and subsequent recovery. Alongside the Pergamon complex, which houses the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art, Multaka also provides tours of the Byzantine art collections at the Bode Museum and the German Historical Museum.

The latter focuses on the story of Germany’s transformation and renewal after the devastation of the Second World War, a message of hope for many refugees fleeing wars raging now in the Middle East.

“I think it’s amazing how the Germans rebuilt their country. It gives us hope that we can do the same in Syria after the war,” said Kefah. “That’s really important, to give hope by example.”