Since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, more than 800,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Germany. Of this, around 40,000 are now living in Berlin, making them the third-largest group of foreign nationals in the city after Turks and Poles. Yet the conflict isn’t the only reason why people from Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia have made Berlin their new home. It was a magnet for queer Syrians before Angela Merkel chose not to close the borders 2015, and continues to be one in the years after. Thanks to its reputation as a hub of queer culture, not to mention its countless gay bars and legendary clubs, Berlin is buzzing with queers from all over the world – including Syrians working in all kinds of jobs.
Aside from the parties, Berlin’s thriving queer community and culture provide a crucial support network for LGBTIQ people persecuted in their own countries, complete with specialised medical treatment and counselling services. Meanwhile and in contrast to other German states, the Land of Berlin sees LGBTIQ exiles as a “vulnerable group” eligible for asylum. The Senat even set up a refugee camp with more than 120 beds exclusively for queer asylum seekers.
Darvish Haidar (24) and Mahmoud Hassino (45) are two of the most prominent Syrian queer refugees enriching Berlin’s LGBTIQ community. Haidar has made a name for himself in the drag and queer night scene, while Hassino has counselled hundreds of queer refugees at the gay service hub Schwulenberatung.
We asked them to tell us why they chose Berlin as a new home, what’s making them stay and what can be improved in the queer capital of Germany – and perhaps even Europe.
I’m luckier than a lot of other queer refugees. Unlike most, I was invited to Europe because of my work. I am from a small town in the Hama Province in Syria. Back in 2012 I started Mawaleh, Syria’s first online LGBTIQ magazine – and have been blogging since well before then. When a German foundation offered me to come to Berlin and talk about my LGBTIQ activism in Syria, some of my friends were already living here. I knew that this might be the right city for me, but at that point in my life I didn’t really plan much. I just thought: “If something comes my way, I might just go.” Anyway, it was the right decision. I love Berlin. I love how cosmopolitan it is and how easy it is to meet different, diverse people – queer or not.
Yet in Damascus my life wasn’t all bad. I had a very tolerant social bubble and I wasn’t harassed because of my sexuality. But still, when I worked on Mr Gay Syria, a documentary about the gay pageant I was organising, everybody who was involved had to make sure to disguise their identities. By then I had left Syria and was living in Turkey, but I was concerned about everyone who took part. After all, I was also scared before I left Syria, and the possibility that something could happen to me always hovered over me.
When I worked on Mr Gay Syria, a documentary about the gay pageant I was organising, everybody who was involved had to make sure to disguise their identities.
When I came to Berlin in 2014 these fears just vanished. I felt safe and relaxed. But again, I was lucky because I didn’t have to go through the regular asylum process. In my work with other queer refugees at the Berlin Centre for LGBTIQ Refugees in Kreuzberg, a project run by Schwulenberatung Berlin, I learned that some are re-traumatised in the asylum process – they actually have to prove their sexuality to different Behörden.
I’m both an exile and queer, so I can relate to the people I counsel. The assumption that somebody is lying is a problem when interviewing vulnerable people, particularly when it comes to survivors of torture or sexual assault. You might trigger something in them. But at least the situation has been getting better in Berlin. The BAMF has hired some LGBTIQ-responsible people to supervise these specific needs and recently we’ve seen less problems with asylum interviews; they aren’t as intrusive as before. But that’s just in Berlin; Brandenburg, for example, is a different story.
In my experience, when you are moving to a new country, capital cities are the best choice. Moving to Berlin in 2016 was definitely the right decision – and not just because I already had two friends here, which of course made everything easier.
At first I had no expectations of the city at all, which made it even nicer to see the possibilities and the doors it opened up. When I dove into life, especially the queer life here, owning my sexuality became a part of every move I made. The diversity of this city is remarkable. Of course, you have similar examples in other big cities, but Berlin has a distinctive community feel to it. Everyone cares for each other, and people actually come to your aid when you ask for help. You can feel the love, you can sense there is actually a family. A lot of us don’t have families anymore, so to create a chosen family in this city has been a blessing.
A lot of us don’t have families anymore, so to create a chosen family in this city has been a blessing.
I first came on a student visa. When that expired, which was actually a mistake by the Ausländerbehörde, I had to apply for asylum. This meant that I had to go through the whole process. The Gates of Hell (as I think of it) because of the amount of anxiety and trauma from that one place haunts me till now. After the medical check-ups, you get transferred to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Then they decide. In those processes you have to tell them that you are queer or homosexual, and then the social worker files a paper to get you into the queer Heim. But because I already had my own apartment, I told them it didn’t make sense for me to go there. I mean, I had an apartment that I was paying for, but they didn’t make any exceptions at first. That was when I turned to Mahmoud Hassino and the Schwulenberatung.
No city is perfect, especially Berlin. But Berlin is special. You make it perfect in your own eyes. It has, like any other city, so many bubbles, subcultures and sub-societies. If you live in a bubble with, for example, over-exaggerated hyper-masculinity, then my advice is to try and burst that bubble and find a new one. Or create your own. There is still a lot of work to be done in the Berlin scene, because the majority of events aren’t inclusive, and the representation for POC queer refugees is not yet there.
That’s what I like to work on. Most of the parties are directed towards what I call the ‘Muscle Queens’; however, in my circle we try our best to make our parties inclusive and not too directed towards a specific genre. But all this criticism aside: I think moving to Berlin was the best decision I have made in my life.