After our first day touring the city of Berlin, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the experience. This was a place we could have spent our entire two weeks in and we would never have had time to take in everything it had to offer. However my fears were allayed when the next two days of our trip, our TOP 6 organizers provided us with an excellent variety of opportunities to experience the rich, culturally diverse history the city had to offer.
On Tuesday, our group headed to the historic Kreuzberg district of Berlin, known for its history as home to young and radical thinkers and immigrants. The district used to be considered an undesirable area due its location, as it was bordered on three sides by the Berlin Wall, so as immigrants arrived to the country, they were often appointed to this district. For the immigrants however, they were happy for the cheap housing and the opportunities presented by the city.
Eventually Kreuzberg was predominantly populated by Arab immigrants, particularly of Turkish descent. When they arrived in Berlin, however, they were treated as outsiders and discriminated against by the German community, leading immigrants to fend for themselves for the goods and services they needed. Over time this created a parallel community, where immigrants continued to live the same way as they had in their former countries, forming a large counterculture that often ran contradictory to the rest of West Berlin.
Our main stop in Kreuzberg was to the FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum, which highlighted the history of this borough and its citizens. The goal of the FXHB Museum is to explain Arab immigrant issues in Germany, to shed light on their coverage in the media, and to support the integration of immigrants into German life.
One main focus of the presentation was to learn about the challenges immigrants face in assimilating into a new society. Though people migrate for many reasons, it is always difficult to integrate those who are forced to move because their real hope is to always return home. Integration also needs a lot of time in order to be successful. For example, the French Hugonauts needed 100 years to integrate into Germany and they were similar to Germans in terms of religion and cultural norms. How long will it take for Turkish immigrants who are Muslim to do the same? Based on what we know of other cultures in similar circumstances, assimilation might take between 150-300 years of time before these Turks truly identify as German.
Most of the Turkish immigrants originally came to Germany for financial reasons. In the 1950’s, Germany went through a period of time called the economic miracle, where their economy was doing so well that they didn’t have enough workers for jobs. Originally, they went to European countries looking for guest workers, or people who could come on a temporary basis, because Europeans were more similar ethnically and culturally. However, once the Cold War began, East Germany had to look to Middle Eastern countries, as many European workers were unwilling to work in the Eastern Bloc. Though the length of most guest worker contracts began at one year, Germany later was forced to change their policy to have unlimited contracts to keep up with their economic demands.
If money earned in Germany was spent there, guest workers were allowed have their families there as well, but many workers still preferred to keep their families at home and would instead send money to them. Though they later reunited with their families, this practice often created distance or tension between the adults and their children when they returned.
All along our walk through the borough we saw examples of street art, shops, and the unique Turkish flavor that dominates the area. I thought it was interesting that some Turkish Muslims in Berlin do not follow the strict alcohol policies of the religion, and tend to be more secular than their counterparts in other Middle Eastern nations. But the biggest takeaway I had throughout the experience lied in the community itself.
Everywhere we went in Kreuzberg, I better understood how close these people were to one another. There was a sense of togetherness and perseverance in the workers on the street, to the people in the cafes, to the street art covering each corner. This place contrasts every other part of Berlin, yet it has always stood confidently as the place in the city that resists the norm. People here were confident in being different, because as the community developed over time, different and radical thinkers found a home here when they would struggle in standard German society. Residents here willingly accepted others because they already understood the pain of being excluded, allowing creativity and innovation to flourish for the uninhibited.
As we walked, I wondered to myself how many communities existed in my home that I never acknowledged or pushed away because of where I grew up and what I valued. However, I never felt uncomfortable here either, as everyone seemed just as friendly and inviting as the rest of the city.
Toward the end of our tour, we visited the Merkez Camii Mosque and met with an Imam to discuss Muslim religious practices. As is standard with Mosques, we were asked to leave our shoes behind when we entered the house of worship. Overall, I found it to be very consistent with the ones I have visited in America previously. What stood out to me though was that this particular Mosque was decorated very modestly and I really felt like the focus here was on the worship rather than the structure itself.
Our tour through Kreuzberg concluded at a Turkish restaurant where we were treated to a variety of Mediterranean cuisine. Towards the end of the meal however, it began to rain heavily and one of my favorite moments was that the building had a retractable awning that began to malfunction. Though the worker in charge continued to hit the button that extended the awning- it continuously opened while we tried to eat, leaving people soaked and running for shelter every time it pulled back! Its admittedly much easier to laugh when you’re safe from the problem, and luckily where I sat happened to be close enough to the door that we escaped the biggest issues.
Kreuzberg is a complex and unique district inside the city of Berlin, and its growth is remarkable considering it was once an area that was regarded as unimportant and undesirable. The people here have truly created a community, in spite of the disrespect once shown to them. As a microcosm of the larger issues facing Germany and the world today, Kreuzberg stands as an incredible example of the human spirit and the ability of a people to persevere and succeed in spite of their surroundings. In our short time there, I felt welcomed and learned so much, and I am left wondering if we could use the model of the FHXB to help eliminate intolerance in our own communities at home.
After Hours Fun
Later that night, following our tour, several of us decided to go out for some fun in the city. Originally we decided to meet near the Motel One to see if we could find an interesting hangout. The first place we went to was a billiards hall hidden on the second floor of a building near our hotel. It is best captured in the mesmerizing image below…
Later we decided to walk through Monbijoupark to get to some well-known locations near the Spree River. On the way to our first location, however, we stumbled into the Montbijou Theater where we caught a large group ballroom dancing to the beautiful accompaniment of violins. Naturally we took plenty of photos, but none could really catch how beautiful the view was at the side of the Spree just as the sun set.
The next stop we made was to the Berlin Meisterschuler, an eclectic mix between an art gallery and beautiful riverside bar. We managed to get some seats outside and spent our time catching up on the laughs of the day.
Wood met up with us later that evening and we ended the night at the Berliner Republik. This was the bar that Tony told me about back in Leipzig, so I was ecstatic that we finally reached it. My favorite part of the bar was the unique way they determined beer prices. The bar was set up to replicate the stock exchange, and every ten minutes beer prices would readjust based on the purchasing patterns of the clientele.
As we traveled back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but think back to my thoughts on the meaning of ‘Community’ that Kreuzberg offered us earlier, and how it applied to our TOP group as well. Ultimately, I couldn’t believe how close I had gotten to this group of people in such a short amount of time. We were literally 16 strangers from different parts of two countries, each with our own specific sets of beliefs and values, and yet somehow over the course of two weeks, many of us grew to become lifelong friends. Every day of the trip we continued to grow as people and rely on each other for support, sharing our excitement, heartache, and wonder through every experience we encountered. Each moment brought us closer together, but our time was soon coming to an end. My head brimming with thoughts, I collapsed to my bed, wondering what tomorrow would bring.