Refugee Artists Where Orient Meets Hip Hop

As Syria’s antique heritage is destroyed by war, artists fleeing the region are landing in Berlin and building a new cultural and artistic legacy in the German capital.
A screen print of a hip-hop record sleeve made by a Syrian musician Kaan Wafi, one of the many artistic and cultural refugees now changing the face of Berlin's art scene.

Amid the chaos and confusion of Europe's refugee crisis, perhaps the last thing many people expected to hear in Berlin was the sound of Syrian melodies being played on the piano.

A man who calls himself Kaan Wafi, a 27-year old refugee from Syria, came to Berlin two and a half years ago seeking asylum and safe harbor from the war.

His journey to the German capital still fresh in his mind, he imbued his feelings of displacement into his music, which he played in cultural centers and in camps for migrants.

He is one of a growing community of artists in Berlin from Syria, Palestine and Iran who meet regularly and find new ways to create music.

Like many, he is fearful of being identified by the Syrian government regime, which he said could take revenge against family members.

“The longer I lived in Germany, the more people I met from home. Eventually we formed a small expat community of artists here,” Kaan Wafi said. “I want to stay in touch with what’s going on in Syria. So I dedicate my music to those lost, abducted and displaced by the war.”

Syria's artistic diaspora is changing the face of Berlin’s art scene.

“Many projects in Berlin deal with the situation of refugees, showing their solidarity with those involved,” said Antje Weitzel, an art curator in Berlin. “I think it’s important that the people involved, the refugees, are given the space to speak for themselves and that we do not speak about or for them.”

I want to stay in touch with what’s going on in Syria. So I dedicate my music to those lost, abducted and displaced by the war. Kaan Wafi

In an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition, Kaan Wafi said he didn't want to give his real name or details about his life for fear of retaliation against his family, who still live in areas controlled by Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

When not playing for refugees, Kaan Wafi works on his own music and has recently composed six pieces that are a fusion of oriental and hip hop.

He created a recording, a vinyl album that is accompanied by a booklet of drawings, poems, calligraphy and photography by other artists from Syria.

The EP’s sleeve design is based on a mosaic pattern by a Syrian artist Ghaybi al-Tawrizi from the 15th century, whose work can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Kaan Wafi and his friends screen printed the covers by hand.

The EP of six songs will be released on Tuesday in Berlin under the name “Pieces from Exile.”

Kaan Wafi first came up with the idea of the booklet after reading the book “Syria Speaks” by 50 artists and writers from Syria who are challenging the violence in the country.

"Für Razan" is a track off EP "Pieces From Exile", dedicated to Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer and civil society activist who was abducted by members of an armed group in Douma on December 9th, 2013.

The exhibition will run in an arts center in Berlin-Fridrichshain, called BOX Freiraum, that has hosted other events concerned with global issues before. Kaan Wafi noted the center had shown works by Syrian artists in the past, including in an exhibition called “My voice rings out for Syria” earlier this summer.

He hadn’t originally intended to be a front man for art from his country. Music was his hobby, he said. He works for a tech start-up. Rather than vinyl, he’d originally thought to upload his music to Soundcloud, an online music streaming service.

But he was inspired by the growing number of artists from Syria and other countries in Berlin and realized there was interest in his work.

The EP will be launched alongside the booklet, which was designed by German graphic designer Rik Watkinson, with works from 13 other artists, including Syrian filmmaker Wiam Simav and photographer Jabar Al Azmeh. The exhibition is located in a brick building which was formerly a stable then warehouse under communism and features neon scrawl across the top saying “Dein Land Exisitiert Nicht” or “Your country doesn’t exist”. BOX Freiraum is owned by Carolina Mojto, who is eager to push issues around migration to the fore.

“I’m keen on helping foreigners gain a foothold in Germany,” Ms. Mojto told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Because I come from a migration background myself,” she said. Her father is from Slovakia and her mother is half German, half Italian.

“When Kaan Wafi came to me with his project, I didn’t hesitate to say yes because I think these kind of events are very important for us in Germany,” she said.

Raman Khalaf is one of the musicians who contributed to Kaan Wafi's music, playing Oud. Here he sings at the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising in March 2015 in Berlin.


Limited vinyls will be sold during the exhibition, which will run for five days. All sales will be going to the White Helmets non-governmental organization, a rescue organization which operates in Syria.

Since the beginning of the year, 42,100 Syrians have arrived in Berlin, 169 percent more than during the same period a year before.

Some who are artists are finding a new space, and a new city, to explore.

“Many of my Syrian artist friends and intellectuals come to Berlin and feel free to develop new ideas and work again,” said Ali Kaaf, a 36-year old painter from Damascus who has been living in Berlin for 15 years.

“Many of them are moving to Berlin for that purpose, whether from Syria directly, or after they have spent time in Lebanon or Turkey,” Mr. Kaaf told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

His friends link up, share tips and help each other to find studios and exhibition venues and apply to study at university.

Mr. Kaaf studied art at the École des Beaux Art in Beirut and came to Berlin in 2000. The last time he was in Syria was before the revolution started, he said.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 against Syrian President Assad, fighting between rival military forces has been destroying much of the country’s world-famous heritage.

A Kommen & Bleiben workshop in knitting at Berlin's Weißensee art academy that welcomes students and refugees to teach and take part in courses like this.


What the United Nation’s World Heritage Organization once protected is now under attack, whether from bombing or pillaging.

As Germany’s capital increasingly becomes a magnet for Syrian artists and intellectuals, organizations are taking root.

Kaan Wafi is part of a group called “Kommen und Bleiben,” or “come and stay.”  It is a collaboration between Berlin’s art academy in the Weißensee district, to enable refugees to teach and take part in workshops at the university.

Waafi Kaan is involved in other projects including a collaboration with another friend and musician whose mother is Iranian and father is Swiss.

A program this fall at a theater in central Berlin, the Maxim Gorki Theatre, will include international artists, theater makers, and refugees who will reflect upon the city’s reactions to their arrival.

The artist who calls himself Kaan Wafi hopes that his showing tonight in Berlin will be the beginning of a successful effort to raise money and awareness for the plight of the Syrian refugees.

And, perhaps, for his return someday to his roots.

"I hope being here allows me to continue my work until one day, I hopefully return home,” he said.

Syrian artist Kaan Wafi is one of a growing community of exile performers and artists living in Berlin.


Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt's Global Edition in Berlin, covering political issues, as well as companies and markets. Sarah Mewes is also an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]