“You’ll have to excuse us,” says Goran Buldioski. “We’re still in the process of setting everything up.” Buldioski is the co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, a branch of the Open Society Foundations founded by US-Hungarian business magnate George Soros.
About six weeks ago Buldioski and 89 of his colleagues, plus their families, all moved to Berlin. He and his staff are here because the Open Society Foundations, whose work involves defending press freedom and minorities and encouraging pro-European initiatives, are now seen as antagonists of the new government in Hungary. For 33 years, the Open Society Foundations worked from the Hungarian capital, Budapest.
“Our room to maneuver became smaller,” Buldioski explains. Topics that he and his staff used to tackle now led them to be described as traitors and enemies of the state.
Buldioski and his colleagues are just the latest to seek refuge in Berlin, a city long known for its dissident ways.
Felix Oldenburg, general secretary of the Association of German Foundations, agrees that Berlin is becoming a city of exiles. His organization is assisting the Open Society staffers as part of a general program to welcome humanitarian foundations to Germany. The help includes everything from tips on kindergartens to decoding local laws.
“The presence of these people, who want to make the world a better place, is an enormous stroke of luck for the city,” Oldenburg says. “They draw other change makers here.”
Berlin's best-known exiles
Among the best-known names to find a home in Berlin, either in the recent past or present, are the likes of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Syrian Kurdish politician Salih Muslim, US filmmaker Laura Poitras, the Spanish politician and former president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, and crusading journalist Can Dündar, former editor in chief of the Turkish center-left newspaper, Cumhuriyet.
Another recent arrival in Berlin is Pyotr Verzilov, the Russian-Canadian activist best known as a spokesperson for the band Pussy Riot after they were arrested by Russian authorities. Verzilov came to Berlin in September this year for hospital treatment after he fell ill, possibly after being poisoned in Russia. It is uncertain how long he will stay as he also has Canadian citizenship.
There are also many, lesser-known politicians and activists-in-exile from Eritrea, Algeria, India, Azerbaijan and Vietnam.
“Men and women who fight against the political status quo in their homelands have always come to Berlin,” explains local historian Joachim Baur.
Live and let live
There are several reasons why activists end up in the German metropolis rather than elsewhere.
For one thing, Berlin has long been a symbol for alternative politics. During the Cold War, when the country was split, young, often-alternative Germans who wanted to avoid conscription came to Berlin instead, bolstering the city’s diminishing population. To this day, locals are known for their liberal, live-and-let-live attitude and there are strong left-wing scenes, as well as hackers and creatives of all stripes.
Yet, the city’s draw for exiles goes back even further. In the 1700s, every fifth Berliner was a French protestant fleeing religious persecution. Russian exiles – first from anti-Semitic pogroms, then monarchists after the Russian revolution – fled to Berlin for a century and a half.
Since the 1960s, exiles from the Middle East started new homes in the city. At one point in 1992, there were so many critics of the Iranian government active in Berlin that the Iranian government sent assassins. They shot four Iranian Social Democrats in a Wilmersdorf restaurant.
However, there are more practical considerations. Knowing German immediately is not necessary to survive in Berlin; one can get by with minimal English. Additionally, many of Germany’s biggest foundations and media houses have bases in Berlin, so exiled activists can easily contact these for both coverage and support, financial or otherwise.
“Berlin offers comparatively good opportunities for exiles. The city is dynamic, it has small publishing houses, space and meeting rooms,” historian Baur notes. Up until recently, there was also the lure of rents considerably cheaper than in other European capitals.
And there is no feeling of a massive disconnection from activist work either, says Sinan Önal, a member of the Turkish opposition party, the Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP.
In early 2017, Önal and many of his fellow party members fled to Germany, fearing arrest or legal proceedings against them. Önal says he managed to remain politically active after arriving.
So has Russian journalist Olga Romanova, who heads Jailed Russia, an NGO that fights for the rights of prisoners. She left her homeland after her offices were searched by Russian security forces, and feels lucky that she wound up in Berlin in 2017.
In the capital, she is meeting like-minded activists whom she never would have had the chance to talk to in Russia. Plus, she found financial supporters which allowed the organization to hire more staff in Russia.
Although Romanova doesn’t know when she will be able to return home, she talks about her meetings with Polish NGOs and Turkish journalists optimistically. “I am in exactly the right place,” she says.
Sebastian Leber and Hannes Heine are reporters with Handelsblatt’s sister publication, Tagesspiegel. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]