A Look Inside the Refugees' Theatre - Pacific Standard
As the population of displaced Syrians swells in Germany, one storytelling series aims to expedite integration through first-person narrative.

On an empty stage, Ahmad Kalaji re-enacts the footsteps that took him from his house to the local shop where he used to buy cigarettes in Syria: 46 steps there, 32 on the way back. One day his path to the shop was interrupted. Kalaji was just six steps away when he saw two men with guns—a new military checkpoint. Syria's civil war, a vicious conflict sparked by President Bashar al-Assad's violent repression of the 2011 Arab uprisings, had reached his neighborhood.

Over the days that followed, the checkpoint mushroomed. "Now there are many soldiers," Kalaji tells the audience. "Cement walls. Wires. A steel gate." Eventually, he stopped counting his steps. His story slips from past to present: That's why he later moved here, to Berlin, he says.

Kalaji, expressive by nature, told his story as part of Storytelling Arena's Syrian Series, a Berlin-based program of live narrative events run by Scottish theater producer Rachel Clarke. Stories are written and read by the city's refugee community, though, as Kalaji speaks, light shines on the silent audience as well. With this, the production hints at a larger message: that success of the country’s "welcome culture"—a phrase that embodies Germany's open-door policy—is not only the responsibility of its refugees, but also of its locals.

In 2016, Germany suffered three terror attacks. Each incident has fueled concerns that migrants introduce greater instability into society. Throughout the Syrian crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for tolerance—for Germany to stand by its humanitarian values. But a December speech marked a shift to the political right. Merkel said that the full-face veil should be "forbidden wherever legally possible," calling for the country's migrant population to adopt a German "way of life."

Jenny Phillimore, a British expert on migrant integration, explains this approach as assimilation, a system where migrants are expected to "become just like us." The alternative, Phillimore says, is integration, "where there is an expectation that the host population will adapt to the new levels of diversity, and the migrant population will adapt as well." Although the European Union clearly defines the process of integration as "a dynamic, two-way process," national governments across the bloc regularly use the word to refer to assimilationist policies.

At each Storytelling Arena event, the audience is a mixture of Germans and Syrians, representing the new fabric of Berlin. Throughout the shows, the two nationalities reveal their similarities but also their differences—they speak different languages, laugh at different jokes, and clap at different points in the music.

The events are multi-lingual. Stories are usually told in Arabic translated into German or English. (Kalaji's was told only in English.)

In 2016, a group of leading German social scientists surveyed over 5,000 Germans about their exposure to and attitudes toward new arrivals. Despite a national climate of intense controversy around immigration issues, they found that native Germans who had more interactions with migrants were more optimistic about co-existence—echoing decades of research that also found a relationship between tolerance and exposure to diversity.

Kalaji says he hopes storytelling helps Berliners feel empathy toward refugees; he doesn't want their sympathy. "Empathy comes from the heart," he says, explaining the difference. "It's like, if someone was in a dark hole, you would go down and stay with the person and be in his shoes. Sympathy is just looking down the hole to tell the person: 'It's dark down there. Hang on.'"

Back in the Berlin theater, it’s time for the intermission. But Kalaji's descriptions of his quiet Syrian neighborhood are still present: Conversations are stuck on the stories just told as theatergoers intermingle. "After the performance, everyone talks together—they get to know each other," storyteller Firas Al Younis says. After the performance, the Syrian tale is also no longer just a headline. It feels human.

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