Berlin-The coronavirus crisis has hit many in Berlin’s food and drink sector hard – and the fast-food takeaway 'Neuland Curry – Curry 32' on Greifswalder Straße in trendy Prenzlauer Berg is no different.
Its owners, husband and wife Gökhan and Dilber Dogan, say their takings are down half on what they were used to before the virus. They fear whether the shop will survive the next year if things carry on like this, and they are now down to going shopping for supplies once a week, as opposed to up to three times before corona.
Maintaining the business through corona isn’t the first challenge the couple have faced either – from staying afloat through the aggressive gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg, to facing discrimination due to their Turkish heritage. In spite of it all, the area is still dear to them, and they are well-known in the neighbourhood.
Long before corona shut down the offices around Greifswalder Straße, with many local workers sat at home unable to work and tourists suddenly absent, the couple witnessed how much more expensive the area has got, and how rents have skyrocketed, since they took over the shop in 2004. They saw the effect that had on other businesses – like the Hufelandstraße florist that had to move elsewhere because the owners couldn’t afford the lease anymore. They say they’ve been lucky – thanks in part to the “good-value” flat they still live in.
Adapting to gentrification
Despite the increased living costs, Dilber says she still likes the neighbourhood’s flair – the international, multi-cultural society that’s established itself here. She also likes the local old-timers who have lived in Prenzlauer Berg since before the Wall came down, when it was a bohemian neighbourhood of East Berlin. And she likes the openness and tolerance there – even when those characteristics can’t be found everywhere.
The Dogans have adapted themselves and their offering to their neighbourhood. Their stand only sells meat that has been ethically farmed. “You can’t offer anything else here,” Dilber says, sitting outside the shop with a glass of black tea. “Most people here really value conscious eating. That’s a good thing though.”
The 50-year-old – who voted Green in Germany’s last election – has lived in Berlin since 1973. As a child of the first generation of Gastarbeiter – “guest workers” from countries like Turkey who came to Germany on temporary work contracts to help rebuild the country and its economy between the 1950s and 1970s – she is a German citizen. “My father lived here from 1967, and a few years later we followed him from Turkey,” she explains.
She then grew up in Kreuzberg – first in the part of town known as “Kreuzberg 61”, then in Waldemarstraße in the 36 region. She still loves the area. “We had a wonderful childhood,” she says. “You know, things with integration were very different back then. There weren’t so many Turks living in Berlin, so we had to sort ourselves out and that meant we were able to learn the language very quickly. I’m very grateful for that. I had German friends that I went to school with. We were all from working families, real grafters who didn’t care what other people were up to. No-one envied anyone else for anything. These days I often think of our society as egoistic. People are only out for themselves.”
1989, the year the Wall fell, brought a big shift for her, as it did for many others. She trained to become a dental nurse. “On 9 November I just happened to catch the news on TV that the borders were open. I was so happy for all those people that they were finally free to travel,” she recalls. She can still remember the first weekend – all the shops were open, long queues formed at the banks. “I just stood there amazed,” she says. Bananas and oranges were all sold out.
Life changed after that, the city too – it was suddenly full of people, themselves full of expectations and fears. She saw the frustration that emerged on both sides, East and West, despite reunification. Sometimes she got the feeling that foreigners were suddenly being seen as a problem – that they had suddenly become the enemy.
Some areas still feel unsafe
“I’d never experienced that before – suddenly I was just a dirty foreigner in the eyes of some people. You didn’t feel safe in some areas – Turks like me would just get abused in those places. Why would you let yourself be humiliated like that?” She shrugs her shoulders. “There are still areas I avoid even today. There’s still widespread dissatisfaction in some of these places, which I can partially understand, so perhaps that explains it. A lot of people lost their livelihoods – they were suddenly just out on the street.”
Their 18-year-old son, who was born in Germany, was just recently verbally attacked by an older man, who yelled at him to “go back where you came from”. Dilber says: “Where are we supposed to go? We have always lived here, worked here and paid our taxes here. In Turkey we’d be even less accepted because people there think of us as Germans. We have no home – we’re stuck in the middle. Everyone needs to just come together.”
But it irks her just as much when other foreigners choose not to integrate. “My God, they have every opportunity in this country. You need your own initiative and ambition. Instead they choose to cut themselves off, stay with their own and don’t speak any German. It’s a crazy world.”
Dilber is then joined by her husband, who was born in Izmir in 1973 and lived there until 1999. After they got married, he joined his wife in Berlin. “At first I didn’t feel very comfortable here, because I didn’t have any friends. But that all changed after a few months,” Gökhan says. He too likes the people who are his neighbours in Prenzlauer Berg. “I find many people here to be warm-hearted. Everything here is very familiar.”
Dilber nods, adding: “That’s true, people here have known us for donkey’s years. Our son went to nursery here, we have the shop as well.” Gökhan chips in: “Yes, and if someone isn’t nice to me, then I give the same back.” “If someone acts like an idiot towards me, I don’t react anymore,” Dilber says. “I’m not someone who gets hateful feelings.”
Another tea is poured, and we come to the question: why doesn’t their shop sell Turkish food? Dilber smiles: “This is how it was when we took it over, and we didn’t want to change anything. I like German food.” She then talks about her father, who originally only worked in Berlin with the intention of earning enough money to buy a tractor and then go back to his home in Turkey. But he ended up staying, finding a job as a porter in Kreuzberg’s old Klinikum Am Urban hospital, and later became self-sufficient working in the food sector. “He opened the first Turkish grocery shop on Adalbertstraße in Kreuzberg,” Dilber remembers. She still misses him – he passed away a few years ago.
Where do the couple see themselves in 30 years? Dilber says: “I hope to see a happy, fulfilled future for my son and the subsequent generations. Most importantly, a peaceful future. I hope we don’t see any more exclusion, but that our society becomes more compassionate.” And that corona doesn’t stick around for another 30 years? She smiles. “Or that another virus comes along and plunges us into doom and gloom.”
She adds: “Corona has shown that we are all in the same boat – it knows no borders and can affect anyone. Many people have come closer together through the crisis, they are more orientated towards their family and friends. There are others though who have distanced themselves from others even further – they turn away and look for people to point the finger at. That’s not a solution. It’s not important who is to blame, but that we all look for ways out of the crisis – together.”
Her husband clears away the tea glasses. The shop will soon be closing – for today anyway.