Often, things that are seen as a problem in society are not: the house where locals and refugees live and work together.
In a mixed and energetic district of south Berlin lies a street that locals refer to as arabische Straße—Arabic Street. Sonnenallee, as it is really called, has become a hub for the Middle Eastern community, lined with Arabic supermarkets, sweet shops and restaurants. It’s one of the first points of call for Arabic-speaking newcomers to the city, including the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who arrived in Germany last year, where they can find foods from home and services offered in their mother tongue. The street is also popular with young Germans and tourists who come for the vibrant markets and nearby bars in this gentrifying part of town. Speakeasies and spacious cafes sit alongside busy kebab houses and phone shops.
In a tall building just off this main thoroughfare, members of all these different groups of people come together in the Sharehaus Refugio, which is home to 50 Germans and newcomers from Europe, Africa and the Middle East who live, socialise and run social enterprises together. They also invite others into their community on a daily basis for everything from meditation to language classes to dance parties. At a recent event there I met a young German administrator who was helping to run the project; a Syrian scientist who came for the weekly language exchange; an Australian on a gap year who volunteers in the community cafe; and a teacher from Eritrea who simply wanted to meet some people—a taste of how mixed the environment is.
The Sharehaus was born out of a similar but temporary project established in South Africa by German expats Sven Lager and Elke Naters. Seeing how divided communities had become, they wanted to create a place where people would see each other “on eye level“—a fun and creative space where people could share with one another, work together, and individual talents could shine.
Lager and Naters' project was limited because the space they were using was rented, but when they returned to Germany they secured support for their idea from Berliner Stadtmission, a Christian housing and community organisation. The Stadtmission owned the building off Sonnenallee and were looking to redevelop it.
The new Sharehaus opened its doors in summer 2015, offering 33 private rooms that are rented by individuals, couples and families, and a big communal kitchen where residents can cook together each night. One year later, the building is filled with a constant stream of visitors. The residents work alongside external volunteers to run the house and its projects, including a popular coffee shop on the ground floor.
Anyone can apply to live there, though the team tries to maintain an even balance of locals and refugees, men and women, and young and old.
“People want to live here because they have shared values,” one of the team members told me. “If you’re just looking for a place to live, this isn’t the right place for you.” Instead, the focus is on community. New residents have a one-month trial period before they move into the house which acts as an opportunity for them to get to know their neighbours and to demonstrate their commitment to the project. Older residents and team members work with them to figure out how they can best contribute their time and skills—from playing music to teaching classes, gardening and organizing events.
“It was difficult to find a place to live when I left the refugee camp,” Murtaza, originally from Afghanistan, told me. “Then I found this place, and it was a good chance for me. Living by yourself isn’t really nice. Here, there is community.”
Malakeh, a TV journalist from Syria, agrees. Her and her husband Mohammed have just renewed the contract on their room for another year. Their newborn son Hussein is one of the community’s newest members. “This place has a good community and for that we’d like to stay,” Malakeh saide. “All the people here are friendly; all the people are kind; they all help each other.”
Aside from community, the Sharehaus also offers practical opportunities. Residents have found the space and support here to establish small businesses and social enterprises, often with a focus on bridging communities.
Arij and her husband Samer, for example, who are lawyers from Syria, offer weekly city tours of Berlin from a refugee’s perspective, giving tourists and locals an insight into what it’s like to arrive in a new city with an unfamiliar language, knowing no one. The tours are frequently sold out.
Murtaza taught himself beekeeping and now produces jars of thick, amber-coloured honey on the roof of the house which he sells at markets; while Malakeh and Mohammed have started a successful catering business, providing Syrian food for parties and events.
“Before I came here there was no chance to meet anyone,” said Mohammed. “We just met refugees, like us, so when I came here it was kind of a big door opening for us.” Team members helped the couple with the paperwork and, as the Sharehaus became better known, they found opportunities to make connections and spread the word about their business. They have since provided catering at events for several big museums, galleries and companies in Berlin.
Now the house is gearing up for the holidays. Crowds of friends and locals gathered in the big hall for its recent Christmas market—talking, eating and browsing stalls of products from the Sharehaus and from other NGOs and refugee projects, including beautifully-crafted wooden toys, handmade soaps and knitted clothes. Stars and fairylights hung from the ceiling; the smell of spicy ginger tea and Malakeh and Mohammed’s chicken shawarma filled the room. A young Turkish migrant stood in front of the audience and told her story. Bands played until late.
The long-term goal is to help establish a network of share homes in other countries: Lager and his team see their own house as a testing ground for experimenting with different ideas, and are looking for partners they can work with. This has required some investment. At the moment, the project is funded only by the Berliner Stadtmission and by donations which, Lager said, has made the effort a bit of a struggle—but he believes the idea is entirely sustainable in the long-run since the costs of each house are paid for by the rent that’s collected from residents (and which, for the refugees, is typically covered by the government in Germany). Once the model is established, it will be easier to replicate elsewhere.
“What I want to say is that it’s absolutely possible [to create this community],” he told me. “It doesn’t matter what your religion is, what your background is, it’s possible and it’s enriching for everyone. Often, things that are seen as a problem in society are not.”
Jessica Abrahams is a British journalist. She was based at Die Tageszeitung newspaper in Berlin as a fellow of the International Journalists' Programme 2016. Follow her on twitter @jiabrahams.