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What Muslim refugees in Berlin taught me about being a mensch

Working with IsraAID in the German capital for a summer, an American college student learns from those fleeing Mideast carnage how to be a Jew, a Zionist and a human being

Middle Eastern refugees and IsraAID staff and volunteers at a picnic in a Berlin park, summer 2016. Hillel Zand is in the lower left corner. (Hillel Zand)
Middle Eastern refugees and IsraAID staff and volunteers at a picnic in a Berlin park, summer 2016. Hillel Zand is in the lower left corner. (Hillel Zand)

BERLIN — “Is university in America really like ‘American Pie?’”

Not exactly the sort of question I’d expect from Omar, one of the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees now living in Berlin. Omar, 18, is originally from Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan. He and his family crossed the nearby border and lived in Masshad, Iran, for 14 years before leaving for Europe in search of a better life.

“Well, kind of, but not really,” I replied, unsure of how to answer.

Omar told me that movies like “American Pie” were highly sought on Iran’s black market. He said his family left Afghanistan to escape the Taliban — only to find that they had even less freedom in Iran.

“There are good people and bad people wherever you go,” he explained in perfect English, his Farsi accent nearly imperceptible. “It’s about equal in Greece, but there are more good people in Germany.”

Omar left Iran in 2014 with his family and spent five months in Turkey and a year in Greece before coming to Berlin. He picked up a little Turkish in Istanbul and focused on learning English while in Athens.

He and his family join more than 1.1 million displaced men, women and children currently residing within Germany’s borders. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians from all walks of life now face an identity crisis as they struggle to figure out if this really is a home for them, or only a temporary refuge.

Hillel Zand (bottom right) with fellow American student IsraAID volunteers and a Syrian refugee (second from left). Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)
Hillel Zand (bottom right) with fellow American student IsraAID volunteers and a Syrian refugee (second from left). Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)

I got to know Omar and many other refugees while I worked seven weeks this past summer with IsraAID, an Israel-based NGO that provides professional humanitarian relief for victims of the world’s worst crises.

I would soon learn the refugee crisis in Europe is unique. It isn’t the aftermath of an earthquake that requires medical support or search and rescue operations, and it isn’t a pathological pandemic that leaves a community in lockdown mode. This is a hidden crisis — one whose victims bear emotional scars more often than physical ones.

In Berlin, IsraAID is providing innovative psycho-social support for refugees and training for German volunteers. As an undergraduate college student with no experience in social work, I viewed my role there as being a pair of eyes and ears to take in the stories of the refugees, engaging them on a human level and reaching outside my comfort zone whenever possible.

On the surface level, people like Omar and me had little in common. My goal for the summer was to find commonalities between us and to amplify them whenever possible — even if they were as trivial as “American Pie.”

A Syrian who calls Palestine home

I was sitting at a park when I met Youssef (all refugees in this piece were given pseudonyms), a 21-year-old sporting a dark man-bun. It’s the kind of hairstyle you would expect on an artsy hipster from Brooklyn rather than a former university student from Homs, Syria’s third-largest city before the war. Only seconds into our brief introduction, he identified himself as Palestinian.

It had never really occurred to me before that families who fled or were displaced following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War of 1967, would continue to identify as Palestinian. Youssef was only one of many Syrian refugees I encountered who when asked where they were from would respond in Arabic, “Ana Falestini min Sooria [I am a Palestinian from Syria].”

Hillel Zand (center) assists Middle Eastern refugees at a computer skills seminar in Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)
Hillel Zand (center) assists Middle Eastern refugees at a computer skills seminar in Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)

I wrestled with the idea that someone whose family had not lived somewhere for more than three generations could still identify as a native of that land. Does that make me, a Jew of Polish descent whose ancestors left for America due to hardship and persecution some four generations ago, a Polish refugee?

Palestinian refugee status as prescribed by UNRWA is the only refugee status in the world that is passed down from generation to generation, a fact that intrigues, angers and perplexes me. This unique arrangement seems like special treatment — other current refugees can’t pass their refugee status along to their kids.

It also seems like a system built to fail, as there are currently around 50,000 living people who were displaced in 1948, yet some 5 million are eligible for UNRWA services today.

When I added Youssef on Facebook, I saw he lists his hometown as Haifa, the Israeli city where his family lived before their resettlement in Syria

I was living in Berlin with a group of close friends, so I asked one of them if we Ashkenazi Jews could consider ourselves Polish refugees.

He said, “Sure, you could say that. But the difference between us and the Palestinian refugees is that they actually want to go back.”

His words rattled me. When I added Youssef on Facebook, I saw he lists his hometown as Haifa, the Israeli city where his family lived before their resettlement in Syria.

Earlier, Youssef had explained to me how Palestinians were treated worse in Syria than native Syrians, and that the case was similar in every other Arab country. Because he was of Palestinian descent, he was afforded fewer opportunities than others, and he feared that his dream of becoming a pharmaceutical chemist could be negatively impacted by this. We talked about politics and how those with power don’t represent the will of people like us.

I told him that I wished that he could come visit Haifa one day.

Inshallah,” he responded with a smile as he shook my hand, “God willing.”

Sharing the little they have

On my first day at the 1,200-person shelter where I volunteered in Berlin, I’d already learned that as an American I have some catching up to do when it comes to soccer.

As I sat on the sidelines catching my breath during a pickup game, Hamza approached me. He spoke only in Arabic and I would soon learn that he didn’t speak a word of English. I realized he was asking me if I wanted water. I nodded my head and he led me up four flights of stairs to the shelter’s dining room.

Middle Eastern refugees dance in a Berlin park, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)
Middle Eastern refugees dance in a Berlin park, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)

On our walk up, we spoke a combination of Arabic and improvised sign language. I learned he was 28 years old and a Kurd from the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

When I told him my name, his eyes lit up as he exclaimed, “Hilal! You have an Arabic name!”

‘Yes, I know it’s an Arabic name. It’s also a Hebrew name, too’

I would grow accustomed to “Hillel” being morphed into “Hilal,” the Arabic word for a crescent moon. And as this exchanging of names with Arabic speakers happened more often, I would learn to interject in their moment of shock and say, “Yes, I know it’s an Arabic name. It’s also a Hebrew name, too.”

Hamza signed in with the security officers at the entrance to the dining room, giving them his assigned numeric ID to gain access. Only later would it occur to me he had sacrificed his one lunchtime access to the hall in exchange for bringing me a mere glass of water. I was grateful, but my Arabic was too limited to express this in words other than “thank you very much.”

We sat and he showed me pictures on his phone of his family, and life in Kobane before the war, commentating in Arabic as I nodded along. I probably understood less than half of what Hamza said, but I like to think that he appreciated having an ear to listen to his story.

Middle Eastern refugees dance at an Eid al-Fitr celebration at a Berlin shelter, July 2016. (Hillel Zand)
Middle Eastern refugees dance at an Eid al-Fitr celebration at a Berlin shelter, July 2016. (Hillel Zand)

Hamza was just one of many who went out of their way to offer me something of the little they had, whether it was a cup of water or a comfortable place to sit, like 10-year-old Jamal did as I sat on the ground watching the joyful dancing at the hafle (party) at the shelter celebrating Eid al-Fitr — the holiday marking the end the holy month of Ramadan.

Jamal pulled my arm, trying to guide me towards the seat he had previously occupied. I told him I was fine sitting on the ground, but he insisted. I realized he wouldn’t let me go until I sat on the bench, so after a minute of back-and-forth, I gave in and positioned myself on the bench, but not before I pulled Jamal up to sit on my lap.

Hamza was just one of many who went out of their way to offer me something of the little they had

The boy pointed to his family sitting on the other end of the courtyard and explained to me that they had lived in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib before coming to Europe the previous fall. Aside from being one of the cutest children I have ever seen, Jamal’s smile and joy at this celebration were infectious, and I couldn’t help but smile too as we listened to the music and watched the shelter’s residents dance the dabke, holding hands in a large circle.

A few weeks later in the same courtyard, a young boy ran up to me as I played soccer with other children.

He leaped into my arms and I asked him in Arabic, “What’s your name?”

“It’s me!” he said. “Jamal from the hafle!”

His new gelled haircut made him hard to recognize at first, but his smile was as bright as ever.

How the world sees you and how you see yourself

A couple days before arriving in Berlin, I had a phone call with Ghada, a young social worker who works for IsraAID. Ghada grew up in Baqa al-Gharbiya, an Arab city of 27,000 in central Israel unfamiliar to many Jewish Israelis.

I asked Ghada, “How do refugees respond when you tell them that you’re an Israeli Arab?”

“I’m not an Israeli Arab,” Ghada quickly responded. “I’m a Palestinian who happens to be living in Israel and who happens to have an Israeli passport. But I am not an Israeli Arab.”

‘I’m a Palestinian who happens to be living in Israel and who happens to have an Israeli passport. But I am not an Israeli Arab’

This word play would continue to be a theme throughout the summer; I was constantly comparing “Israeli Arab” with “Palestinian” and “refugee” with “asylum seeker.”

In the same way that the label “Israeli Arab” was limiting to Ghada, and also something that she didn’t identify with, the same would be the case for the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others we met in Berlin when it came to the word “refugee.” It tends to connote despair, poverty, and to some, even a sort of sub-humanity.

The word “refugee” does not conjure images of doctors and engineers, polyglots or the middle to upper-middle class — yet these were the types of people I met on a daily basis. It is true that they had all experienced severe hardship and some even admitted hopelessness about the status quo in the Middle East. But even if the internationally sanctioned definition of “refugee” applied to them, did that make them one?

An IsraAID staff member (second from right) with Middle Eastern refugees in Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)
An IsraAID staff member (second from right) with Middle Eastern refugees in Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)

This conundrum exposed yet again the lack of nuance we suffer today in America. Someone who views refugees as radical Muslim infiltrators with nothing to contribute to American society has not met the people I have.

They haven’t met Adam, a 20-year-old from Damascus whose skin was so pale and whose English so well-spoken that when I first met him at the shelter, I mistook him for a German volunteer. They probably wouldn’t guess that Adam doesn’t believe in God or refuses to use the word inshallah, a term commonplace in Arab culture among religious and the secular alike.

Someone who views refugees as radical Muslim infiltrators with nothing to contribute to American society has not met the people I have

They would also be surprised by a Syrian Druze called Mariam, a short woman in her mid-20s with blonde curly hair. Mariam, a former English teacher, and her husband Khaled met in their hometown of al-Soueda, a city in southern Syria with a large Druze community. (My friends and I joked that we met so many Druze people from Soueda in Berlin that we must know everyone from the city of 800,000.)

Before the war, Khaled was a competitive swimmer with the Syrian national team. But like Youssef, his status as a minority within Syria led to discrimination as the regime deprived him of any chance of competing in major regional or world championships.

Khaled and Mariam fled to Germany in 2014, but before coming to Berlin, they spent more than half a year in a rural northern German town the government had assigned them to live in. Their struggles only continued in this small town with an aging population, little opportunity, and residents who often uttered racist remarks as they walked down the street.

Mariam told us that she had become pregnant and aborted the baby without any help. I took this to mean that she went to a doctor without the support of family and friends. Only later did I realize what “without any help” really meant.

IsraAID volunteers and Middle Eastern refugees at a picnic in Berlin, summer 2016 (Hillel Zand)
IsraAID volunteers and Middle Eastern refugees at a picnic in Berlin, summer 2016 (Hillel Zand)

“I know how to count in Hebrew!” Mariam exclaimed when we started talking about languages. She then proceeded to count aloud, “Ehad, shtayim, shalosh...”

“How did you learn Hebrew?” I asked Mariam, although by that point in the summer, I wasn’t surprised. Most Syrians we had met knew at least a handful of Hebrew words.

“My city was so close to Israel that my television would pick up the signal,” she said. “I learned from the cartoons.”

Despite how different our stories and experiences were, Mariam and I were in fact closer than I had thought.

Building bridges by listening and sharing

Soccer games at the shelter took on a Middle Eastern flavor. Not two minutes went by before a game was paused for one reason or another and members of opposing teams would begin arguing about some rule discrepancy or some alleged foul. Sometimes I wondered if it was just an argument for the sake of arguing, because it had been two minutes since the last disagreement.

During one of these pauses in play, a young child approached me. I greeted him in Arabic and received the facial reaction of “white-boy-speaks-Arabic!” that I had become accustomed to. He was curious how and why I knew Arabic, even at an elementary level.

“Are you Muslim?” he asked.

“No.”

“Are you Christian?”

“No.”

“Then what are you?”

Ana Yahoodi [I’m Jewish],” I said.

I imagine I was probably the first Jew he had ever met — certainly the first Arabic-speaking one

He paused for a second, puzzled. I extended my hand and after a moment, he shook it. I knew he wasn’t afraid, only surprised. If I were in his shoes, I probably would have reacted the same way. I imagine I was probably the first Jew he had ever met — certainly the first Arabic-speaking one.

When I got back to the US, my friends asked me whether I had told the Middle Easterners we encountered that I was Jewish, and whether I went a step further and told them that my family lives in Israel.

Heading to Berlin I hadn’t expected any anti-Semitism, and it turned out I was right. I learned that people cared less about religion. The conflicts that have displaced these people have arisen because of politics, not because of religion or some sort of clash of civilizations, as the West often paints it. In their eyes, I was just another “person of the book,” like any other Jew, Muslim or Christian. I even met a couple of people who talked about how they knew that under Hitler, Germany “did many bad things to Jews.”

“Tell me about your religion,” a 15-year-old girl from Baghdad asked me and my friend. “I know about Islam and Christianity, but who is your God?”

“My god is Allah, just like yours,” I said.

‘I know about Islam and Christianity, but who is your God?

“And how do you pray?” she asked.

My friend started doing his best Hasidic rabbi impression, swaying forward and backward with his eyes closed. The three of us began to laugh.

“Something like that,” I smiled.

As expected, Israel was a sensitive subject. I only brought it up as an introduction into my life if someone told me about themselves and then wanted to learn about me. I would tell them that my family lives in al-Quds, the Arabic word for Jerusalem, to which they would usually respond — as Hamza did when I showed him a picture on my phone I had taken of the Dome of the Rock — “Ahh Falasteen [Palestine]!”

American student IsraAID volunteer (left) in conversation with a Middle Eastern refugee. Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)
American student IsraAID volunteer (left) in conversation with a Middle Eastern refugee. Berlin, summer 2016. (Hillel Zand)

During my humanitarian work in Berlin, I repeatedly had to ask myself, “What’s more important right now? Helping this person and hearing their story, or starting a political debate?”

If I had been brought up being told that the Land of Israel was actually called Palestine, I would’ve said the same thing Hamza had. How could I blame him for that? I would also ask myself what would have a greater impact on the person I was conversing with: Telling him that I disagreed or continuing to talk about my life experiences? With the latter, I hoped he would walk away having learned at least one new thing.

I believe in a land for the Jewish people and I believe in respecting the rights and opinions of all

“Here is a guy who is Jewish, whose family lives in Jerusalem, who has a Semitic name and speaks Hebrew. Why is he here talking to me in Arabic and trying to help me?” I could imagine Hamza and others thinking.

It was this train of thought I wanted to spark. If my presence had somehow conflicted with a preconceived notion they had of me, my time in Berlin was successful.

I am a Zionist. But being a Zionist isn’t about forcing one’s opinion down the throats of others. And it isn’t about completely dismissing the narratives of others, as is done all too often today.

I believe in a land for the Jewish people and I believe in respecting the rights and opinions of all. Some may say that in today’s world, these two things are mutually exclusive. I beg to differ.

Strangers in a strange land

I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in God. But there’s something about the verses in the Torah that talk about the Hebrew slaves in Egypt being “strangers in a strange land” that I find resonate with my experiences.

Here in Berlin were people who had made an exodus of their own by land and water, just as the Israelites had done. And just like the Israelites who made their way through the Sinai Desert to the Land of Israel, the journey of the refugees has only just begun; now they must adapt to life in a new land, as strangers to the average German.

In an ever-globalizing world, the future ought not to lie in the eradication of different cultures, but rather in preservation, acknowledgement and interaction

Many have picked up the German language quite well, especially the younger ones. But most still have heaps of governmental bureaucracy ahead of them before they can find jobs, go to school and get the social welfare benefits that European countries are renowned for.

It would be naive to say that Germany is doing just fine with the refugee crisis. At the same time, I can’t imagine any country in today’s world being able to take in 1.1 million people in the span of less than a year. I am convinced that what is happening today in Europe and the Middle East is a monumental moment in world history and will shape the 21st century. What this moment will ultimately produce, I do not know.

That is not to say that this is a hopeless moment. In fact, quite the contrary. It’s a time for building bridges — across languages, religions and cultures — as IsraAID is doing in Berlin and around the world.

In an ever-globalizing world, the future ought not to lie in the eradication of different cultures, but rather in preservation, acknowledgement and interaction.

IsraAID’s Berlin staff this summer consisted of two Israeli Druze, an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian and a handful of American college students. It is this sort of cross-cultural interaction that I believe is imperative at a time when the world seems discombobulated and unsure of what it wants.

At the end of the day, I’m reminded of the Arabic phrase I told Hamza during our first conversation:

Kulna fee al-hawa sawa.” We’re all in the same boat.

Hillel Zand is a sophomore at The George Washington University studying international affairs and economics. He spent the past summer living in Berlin engaging the refugee community in the city and interning for IsraAID, an Israeli NGO specializing in global humanitarian aid.

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