On Berlin’s ‘Arab Street,’ Old and New Immigrant Worlds Collide

In the German capital, a section known as 'Little Beirut' is getting a revival after immigrants set up shop

Women wearing headscarves walk through a street in Berlin's Neukoelln district September 6, 2010.
REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

During the Cold War, Sonnenallee was an unremarkable street with a checkpoint that drew attention only at Easter when West Berliners visited their relatives in the East. Nicknamed “Little Beirut,” it was known for its Lebanese stores and smoky cafes playing old Arab songs.

Then, in 2015, the street was given new life. An influx of refugees, mostly Syrians, turned Sonnenallee into one of the busiest streets in the capital. Today, crowds of shoppers push past stalls selling fruit and vegetables.

Two confectioneries mark the Syrian presence, “Green Idlib” at the northwestern end and “Damascus” to the southeast. “Little Beirut” became known as “Arab Street.”

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Berlin has had an Arab population since 1960, when then-West Germany invited in thousands of Moroccans as “guest workers” to help rebuild the country’s postwar economy. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian-Lebanese migrants arrived, fleeing Lebanon’s civil war.

Living in parallel societies, many of these Arab migrants barely integrated with their German neighbors. Unemployment rates among men are high and a third of the female population lives on welfare, according to government data.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to take in more than 1 million migrants brought the challenges of integration to the fore and upended German politics. Anti-immigrant sentiment propelled the far-right Alternative for Germany to third in the 2017 election.

Yet it is earlier generations of Arab migrants in places like Sonnenallee who often show the greatest resentment to the newcomers, “more than Germans,” said Rasha Alkhadra, a 42-year-old YouTube blogger from Syria.

Of the nearly 695,000 migrants who applied for asylum in Germany in 2016, more than 62% received refugee status or humanitarian protection, which enabled them to work and receive welfare benefits, according to data from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Among applicants from Syria, the figure was higher, at around 97%.

In contrast, 10 years earlier, less than 7% of asylum applicants in Germany received refugee status. A 2016 study by Bielefeld University found more than half of established migrants in Germany believe the newcomers should settle for less.

“The government opened new horizons for the refugees, horizons which we did not see,” said Houda Zeidan, 46, a Palestinian-Syrian who has lived in Berlin for 25 years and works as a nurse caring for the elderly. Zeidan said she came to Germany to join her husband.

She said she wasn’t allowed to work for three years, wasn’t entitled to welfare benefits and, unlike today’s arrivals, had to pay for German-language classes. “When I saw what they received, I wished I was a refugee,” she said.

Among those arriving on Sonnenallee was 34-year-old Ammar Kassem, who had made a living in Damascus selling poultry to restaurants and shops. He left Syria in September 2015 and arrived in Germany a month later, having traveled through Turkey, Greece and eastern Europe.

In the summer of 2016, Kassem opened a restaurant selling shawarma and other Levantine food. Today, Kassem’s restaurant, Aldimashqi, is one of Sonnenallee’s most popular haunts. Syrian waiters scuttle between the grilled meat stands and the packed tables. Customers stand in line to take food away.

But business wasn’t always so good. When a Syrian folk band performed to celebrate the restaurant’s opening, Kassem recalled, neighbors complained to the police about the noise. Arab gangs demanded protection money, he said. He refused to pay. Then, in October 2016, masked men threatened his staff.

Several residents corroborated his story. One said it was impossible for newcomers to open a business on Sonnenallee without the “unofficial approval of older, established migrants.” Berlin police said they had no record of an incident at Aldimashqi, but added not all incidents are put in a report.

“I realized I needed someone to support and protect me in the market,” Kassem said.

An old Lebanese family helped him find a new location for his restaurant and became a partner in the now thriving business.

Ahmad Rezzou, 32, worked as a cashier at Aldimashqi for more than a year. He said he could tell whether customers were old or new migrants from the way they placed their orders. Syrians tended to be friendlier.

“Maybe life here was very harsh to them [old migrants] so they became like this,” he mused. 

On Sonnenallee, one of the older generation of migrants, Mansour Azzam, says he has become something of a peacemaker. Azzam is working on establishing a committee for Arab restaurants after more than a dozen Syrian restaurants opened in the past two years.

“I told them that if we don’t work together, we will all lose.”