Mohamed Al-Subeeh was a senior restorer at Syria’s best-known mosaic museum, but as war swept deeper into his province, destroying artefacts and threatening his and his family’s lives, he was forced to flee.
The 64-year-old from Idlib province never dreamt that he would ever work in a museum again, certainly not in Germany, to which he had fled in a 23-day journey that involved a rubber boat ride across the Mediterranean, endless bus and train rides and hours of trekking on foot.
But when he heard about a project at some of Berlin’s top museums that trains newcomers to become Arabic-language guides for fellow refugees, he leapt at the opportunity.
“I loved my work in Syria. Being a guide here today makes me feel like I’m getting a bit of my life back,” Subeeh, who used to work at Maaret al-Numan museum, said.
Subeeh, who arrived in Germany last August, now takes groups of Syrian, Iraqi and other Arabic-speaking refugees on tours through the Bode Museum, where artefacts include a large mosaic piece from Ravenna, Italy.
As part of a bid to integrate refugees into Germany, several museums run by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which administers the capital’s state museums, came up with the unique project.
Nineteen new arrivals were selected to participate in the programme, which entailed taking a course about the artefacts or art works that they would be introducing to fellow refugees.
“We also learnt about how to capture their interest, so that they don’t get bored during the one-hour tour,” said another guide Kefah Ali Deeb, a Syrian opposition activist who says she was jailed four times by the regime before she fled.
Deeb, who now conducts tours at the Pergamon Museum, said she is grateful for the opportunity to “meet other Syrians and Iraqis and to tell them about our own heritage”.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, a tour takes visitors to see one of the participating collections – the Museum for Islamic Art, the Near East Museum, the Sculpture Collection, the Byzantium Art Museum as well as the German History Museum.
Since December, 3,000 refugees have joined such sessions to view artefacts from their own heritage, and to learn about Germany’s tumultuous history.
The tours have proved so popular that the organisers are looking at expanding the programme to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in”.
Graphic designer Shadi Zayab, who arrived in Germany just four months ago after fleeing Syria to avoid military conscription, was on his second visit to the Pergamon Museum.
“I really enjoy this. It’s important to me to see this art, these colours, materials, everything here. It feels like coming home,” he said, after a tour that included an ornately decorated wall alcove which comes from a Damascus house.
After taking in more than 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015 alone, Germany is shifting gears from its emergency refugee relief work to integrating the newcomers.
Key cultural institutions in the country have also chipped in, including Berlin’s world-renowned orchestras which this year organised a special concert for refugees and volunteers.
Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, underlined the significance of the collections included in the Multaka project.
The project, whose name translates into “meeting point”, includes Arabic and Islamic art collections as they are “particularly important for people who have lost their homeland and who now find themselves in a foreign land”, Parzinger said.
Christian art is also in the mix as it shows newcomers “the society in which they now live and which they need to understand”.
The participation of the German history museum meanwhile showcases “the complete destruction in the 20th century, but despite that, the rebuilding – that is a vision for people to take courage and be confident in their future,“ said Parzinger.
That was also a message that Bashar al-Mohammad al-Shahin, who used to work as a museum guide in Syria, wanted to give to fellow citizens he was taking on tours in Berlin.
“In the First World War, the Second World War, millions of people were killed here, there was a lot of destruction.
“But Germany became the top country in democracy, technology and economy, so we have to learn. One day when we come back home, we have to do the same, we have to build our homeland,” he said. – AFP