Over the course of 2015, journalist Andreas Tölke offered 400 strangers to share his Berlin apartment. While it may sound crazy to most people, it was Andreas' way of helping during one of Europe's most recent crises; the people he offered shelter to were refugees from Syria.
Today he heads up the restaurant Kreuzberger Himmel in Berlin. A project dedicated to training and hiring refugees – as chefs, waiters and restaurant managers – to give them a foot in the German job market. We visited Andreas and his French Bulldog Herr Müller to talk about creating a space where people can meet, eat and share their stories.
One too many times I saw how difficult it was for people coming to Germany to find jobs or start training. And I thought, it shouldn't be that hard. So me and the team dreamed up a place where locals and refugees could get to know each other. Refugees often first meet Germans as administrators, and Germans mostly know refugees from television. For both to meet and eat great food in a well designed space – that was the mission.
It was hell. We were completely naïve and suddenly had to deal with trade inspectors, environmental protection officers, the hygiene department and more. But we have sensational supporters in the gastronomy world. So luckily, the super stressful times were short.
First of all, every initiative and volunteer supporting refugees has my greatest respect. But over time, we've seen that the people arriving in Berlin are just overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with letters from authorities, with everyday life, with us – because Europeans have idiosyncrasies, too. So at the charity, which the restaurant really is just the face of, we hold people's hands. With each question, each form that needs filling out, each problem. We're here for people. And we have only one rule: we do not tolerate violence and discrimination, on that we're very clear. "You don't have to understand everything, but no one wants you commenting on the way we dress or who we love. Accept our freedom, which ultimately is something you want for yourself."
Our interior designer wanted to create a space that was contemporary but not overly designed. Large tables were especially important. The idea behind it was sharing. We seat strangers together and have experienced many times that that's how conversations start. Our guests have a lot of fun together. So the concept works.
Who designs the menu?
Our chef is Othman. He's from Syria, where he had a team of 32 employees and ran a top restaurant. He develops the menu and keeps coming up with new ideas. Othman is simply our backbone. Layali from Iran assists him. Then there's Ala, who makes pâtisserie and desserts. And Bakri, a lawyer from Aleppo, who manages the kitchen.
And who are your guests?
Everyone. The old gentlemen from next door, the art and fashion scene from Mitte, many international guests, often from universities and colleges. "Everyone" may sound like a standard response, but it's the truth. Here, people who would have never crossed paths sit together at one table – a dream!
What role does the location play in the restaurant's success?
Kreuzberg has always been the essence of Berlin. From hip start-ups to an alternative art scene, from cool clubs to top restaurants – this place has everything. Kreuzberg suits us and we suit Kreuzberg.
Starting a restaurant is one thing, but do you have any ideas on how we can all become more involved in everyday life?
What helps is open mindedness, being unbiased. And if you want to get involved there are initiatives that help refugees in almost every city – I'm happy to make introductions. In Berlin we need supporters when dealing with authorities, invites for socialising and people who can help with German lessons. And of course, we're always happy about donations!
Article written by: Lisa Wenske
Photography by: Anna Cor