BERLIN — Germany is the country of Goethe and Kant, Bach and Beethoven. But recent migrants are hoping to sprinkle Arabic poetry and Middle Eastern music, into that mix.

At the “Between Us” cultural center in the German capital, migrants meet regularly to share their art, poetry and music — both to provide a flavor of home, and to educate the native citizens of their new home.

“There are almost no libraries with Arabic books or institutions for Arab culture here,” said Muhannad Qaiconie, the 30-year old founder of the center.

“Still, Berlin is now a hotspot for Syrian authors, artists and musicians, and we want to give them a meeting place and a platform.”

Nearly 900,000 migrants flooded into Germany in 2015 and hundreds of thousands more have arrived since then, the largest single group being refugees fleeing war-torn Syria.

Qaiconie, a native of the Syrian city of Aleppo, arrived two years ago, and founded the center this summer for his fellow Syrians and anyone else interested in stopping by.

The center, in a room on the top floor of a 16-story refugee hostel in central Berlin, hosts poetry readings and has a library that holds a collection of Arab books. It’s funded by donations and staffed by volunteers.

On the weekends, Syrian musicians are invited to play at the center’s outdoor space, on the rooftop of the hostel.

At a recent concert Nabil Arbaain, who arrived as an asylum seeker from Syria two summers ago, charmed the crowd with melodies played on the oud, a pear-shaped instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music, accompanied by a German guitarist and a Syrian percussionist.

The audience is international. Arabic is mixed with English and German and the crowd cheers after each song. In the background, the sun sets over the Berlin skyline.

“Some people don’t know anything about Syria” said Arbaain, 36, after the concert. “So we have to work hard to fix the image.”

Arbaain travels across Germany to play concerts, and said in addition to fellow Syrians longing for a taste of their homeland, many Germans turn out to listen.

Some have preconceived notions about migrants, but he said the first-hand contact and cultural exchange helps immediately.

“It is not so difficult to change German people’s minds,” he said.

Meantime, Arbaain said migrants have their own challenges to work on, like learning the German language, which is helped by mixing with local residents.

“German is not hard — it’s the first 100 years that are difficult and then it gets easy,” he joked.

But kidding aside, Qaiconie said most migrants that he knows are anxious to shed the name “refugee” and be accepted as individuals.

“When I introduce myself I don’t introduce myself as a refugee, I introduce myself as a student,” said Qaiconie, who is now working on a BA in English literature and philosophy at a small college in Berlin. “I don’t think anyone likes being called a refugee.”

The cultural center’s library, which is open one day a week, attracts a steady flow of people looking for books. Most are looking for volumes they might have owned before fleeing or books that can help them with their studies, but some come because they are themselves writing about their experiences as migrants, and need help and inspiration.

With the passage of time and support of such efforts, Qaiconie said, he hopes that Syrian culture will become a part of Germany.

“I think we will add to German society,” he said. “We won’t just take but we will add.”

Author photo
JONA KALLGREN
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