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No place like home? A surprising similarity between Syria and Germany

Mahmoud Hassino, who started Syria´s first LGBT magazine and now lives in Germany, draws a parallel between the two countries – past and present

Mahmoud Hassino by Alexa Vachon

Nov. 29, 2017 – In a country not so far away, people lived in prefabricated buildings, were assigned to jobs regardless of their qualifications and were enrolled in the ruling party as “comrades”.  After suffering long under their dictatorship and its secret police, they attempted a peaceful revolution to topple the regime that ruled their country for decades.

These lines might seem to apply to former East Germany, the DDR, but they also describe Syria. On a visit to the DDR Museum, I found the similarities between the two countries bewildering. Everything was like what we had in Syria – the furniture, the appliances and the Trabant. It seemed like a trip down memory lane, until I almost had a panic attack upon entering the “interrogation room”, identical to the ones in Damascus. It is true that the DDR's peaceful revolution led to the reunification of Germany whereas in Syria it escalated to a full-blown civil war, but the situations of East Germans and Syrians are still comparable.

Assad’s regime survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the downfall of communism through implementing many changes to the then existing socialist economic system. In the 90s and 00s, Syrians couldn’t cope with competition that was created by the new free-market and privatization policies. They were raised and educated to believe that each comrade had their guaranteed place in the country and the system but found themselves losing their incomes, jobs and homes. They decided to take to the streets to call for reforms. The crackdown of Assad’s regime on protesters added to their decades-long frustration, resulting in extreme political polarization.

In 2014, a friend who grew up in the DDR told me about acts of vandalism on the refurbished buildings and façades in the eastern parts of Berlin. “I don’t blame them. They feel abandoned by their own country,” I said. In the following years, I learned more about German history to find out that successive governments ignored all signs of East Germans’ frustration.

Although Germany has been progressing economically, many East Germans felt they were left behind as second-class citizens. Like in the old days of the DDR, they needed a scapegoat. The AfD seized this opportunity, directed attention toward the so-called “refugee crisis” and become the third most powerful party in the Bundestag. Other parties contributed to the AfD’s success by patronizing their voters and calling them racists, neo-Nazis or xenophobes.

East Germans and Syrians were discouraged from taking responsibility as the state was doing that for them. Syrians are blaming the West for the civil war, while East Germans are blaming Merkel and the refugees (who only arrived en masse two years ago) for 27 years of shortcomings. The success of the AfD is frightening; however, it should be attributed to the governmental failure to address pressing domestic concerns, especially since globalization and structural changes provided the AfD electoral votes in West Germany as well.

Mahmoud Hassino started Syria’s first LGBT magazine and now works for gay counseling network Schwulenberatung Berlin



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