Turkey Opens Largest Foreign Military Base in Mogadishu

Turkey’s largest foreign military base in the world opened Saturday in Mogadishu, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Somali leaders, top Turkish military officials and diplomats.

Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and the head of the Turkish military, General Hulusi Akar have jointly inaugurated the 4 square kilometer (1.54 square mile) facility, which holds three military residential complexes, training venues, and sports courts. It had been under construction for the last two years.

General Akar said the base is the biggest sign of how Turkey wants to help Somalia.

“We are committed to help [the] Somali government, and this base will cover the need for building strong Somali National Army. And it is biggest sign showing our relationship.”

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Khaire highlighted the significance of the training base for his country.

“Today our country goes to the right direction toward development and the re-establishment of Somali Army, capable and ready for the defense of their nations,” said Khaire “This base is part of that on ongoing effort.”

More than 200 Turkish military personnel will train some 1,500 Somali troops at a time, according to Somalia’s defense Ministry. The Somali prime minister said it will manufacture an inclusive united Somali Army.

“This training base has a unique significance for us because it is a concrete step taken toward building an inclusive and integrated Somali National Army,” said Khaire. “My government and our Somali people will not forget this huge help by our Turkish brothers. This academy will help us train more troops.”

The inauguration ceremony was held amid tight security around the base located in the Jaziira coastal area in southern tip of the capital.

Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Army chief said, “the Turkish government would continue to support our Somali brothers until their country becomes militarily stronger.”

Other diplomats who attended the event said the training is part of an international effort to strengthen the Somali National Army to a point where it can take over security responsibilities from African Union troops currently fighting al-Shabab militants. The African Union has said it wants to begin withdrawing troops from Somalia next year.

Prime Minister Khaire said the base also will help to defeat the extremism and the ideology that drives young Somali men into violence and terrorism.

“To defeat terrorism and fight against the poverty, we have keep in mind that building our national security and eliminating corruption is the key,” he said.

Somalia has a significant number of military personal, but they are ill-trained and poorly equipped. Last week, the government repeated its plea for world leaders to lift an international arms embargo.

The U.S. already had deployed dozens of American soldiers to Mogadishu, and their presence marked the first American military forces in Somalia, except for a small unit of counterterrorism advisers, since March 1994.

The United Arab Emirates also has a military facility where they train the Somali Army, which many politicians condemn for taking orders directly from UAE commanders.

“The good news is not only the opening of this training base but also …that when Turkey trains our troops it will also equip them,” said Somali Military Chief, Ahmed Mohamed Jimale.

Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab is attempting to overthrow the Somali government and install a strict form of Islamic law throughout the country. On Friday, 30 people were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a Somali military army base in the town of Barire, 47 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu.

 

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Spaniards Divided Over Catalonian Independence Vote

Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in Barcelona to oppose Sunday’s referendum on Catalonian independence from Spain.

Waving Spanish flags, the protesters filled the square in front of Barcelona’s regional government buildings Saturday.

Madrid has declared the vote illegal, and authorities in Spain began sealing off polling stations and confiscating ballots. While the Spanish national government said there would be no Catalonian independence vote, Catalonia’s regional government continued preparations for it.

Hundreds of people supporting the referendum camped out in schools in an attempt to keep them open for Sunday’s vote.

Enric Millo, the highest-ranking Spanish security official in the northeastern region, said Saturday that police had already blockaded half of the more than 2,300 polling stations designated for the referendum vote.

He said Spanish authorities also had dismantled the technology Catalan officials planned on using for voting and counting ballots, which he said would make the referendum “absolutely impossible.”

The president of the Catalan National Assembly appealed directly to the “conscience” of police officers deployed to the polling stations while speaking to reporters Saturday.

“I am aware they have a job to do, that they have their orders and have to carry them out. We are aware of that. But we also know that they have feelings, conscience,” he said.

“So tomorrow, when they carry out their orders they will undoubtedly receive, I hope they keep in mind — during the situations they find themselves in — that these could be their children, their mothers or their nephews, members of their family who just want to be able to  express themselves in freedom.”

Spanish Culture Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that the independence vote would violate Spanish law and that the government would not accept the results.

“We are open to dialogue within the framework of the law. As you would understand, nobody can ask us … to engage in dialogue outside the framework of the law. It’s impossible,” he said. “No European political leader can even consider dealing with an issue that is not in [Spanish] government hands.”

Catalan authorities said they would declare independence from Spain within 48 hours of the vote if residents there chose to secede.

On Friday, Catalan farmers rode tractors through the streets of Barcelona, driving slowly and waving pro-independence flags and banners. The tractors eventually stopped, converging on the regional government building.

At the same time, European Union officials said they would not mediate the dispute between Spain and Catalonia, calling it a matter of Spanish law.

“[It is] a Spanish problem in which we can do little. It’s a problem of respecting Spanish laws that Spaniards have to resolve,” said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans called on Europeans to respect the constitution and rule of law in their countries. He said people in the EU need to organize themselves “in accordance with the constitution of that member state.”

“That is the rule of law — you abide by the law and the constitution even if you don’t like it,” he said.

Catalan authorities previously had appealed to the EU for help, saying the Spanish government undermined their democratic values.

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Russian Soldier who Killed 3 Comrades Shot Dead

Officials in far east Russia say a soldier who opened fire at other servicemen during drills has been tracked down and killed.

The military says the soldier, who killed three and wounded two other soldiers, offered resistance to arrest and was shot dead early Saturday following a massive manhunt.

During Friday’s incident, the soldier fired his Kalashnikov rifle at his comrades waiting to have target practice at a base outside the town of Belogorsk near the border with China and then fled.

The city administration in Belogorsk says the soldier came from the province of Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has sent a commission to investigate the shooting.

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Kosovo President: US Will Be Directly Involved in Final Kosovo-Serbia Deal

Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, says U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has pledged that the United States will be directly involved in reaching a final agreement to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. 

Thaci told VOA’s Albanian service after meeting with Pence on Friday at the White House that “Pence will be focused and maximally involved” in reaching a deal between the two countries. 

“I believe that this willingness of the U.S. administration and personally of Vice President Pence is a guarantee for the success of this process,” Thaci said. 

He said he is confident the process will “lead Kosovo into a final agreement of normalization and reconciliation of Kosovo-Serbia relations and would open prospects for Kosovo’s integration into the United Nations.”

A White House statement Friday said Pence “expressed appreciation for Thaci’s leadership, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, to advance the EU-facilitated dialog to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”

The White House said Pence and Thaci “agreed on the importance of advancing reforms to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption and boost economic growth” and said Pence reaffirmed the “United States’ support for a sovereign, democratic and prosperous Kosovo.”

The White House also encouraged Kosovo to ratify the border demarcation agreement with neighboring Montenegro “to resolve this long-standing issue.”

Thaci told VOA that Pence called on Kosovo to solve the issues as soon as possible. He said Kosovo has “good neighborly relations with Montenegro” and stressed the importance of such ties.

“No one can support you if you build bad relationships with your neighbors. We have a lot of problems with Serbia. We cannot open other problems with our neighbors that could cost us the integration processes” with the European Union, he said.

Thaci said the issue is in the hands of Kosovo’s parliament.

The border agreement was signed in 2015 but has not had sufficient support in Kosovo’s parliament for ratification.

The European Union insists Kosovo must approve the border demarcation deal before its citizens enjoy visa-free travel within Europe.

Montenegro has recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, but Serbia vehemently opposes it.

VOA’s Albanian service contributed to this report.

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Russia Charges Opposition Leader for Unsanctioned Protests

Russian police released opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate Alexei Navalny on Friday after several hours in detention.

Police charged Navalny with repeatedly organizing unauthorized rallies, an administrative offense punishable with a fine of up to a 300,000 rubles ($5,200) and compulsory work for up to 200 hours.

“We were finally presented with a charge and released, and the trial will be on October 2 at the Simonovsky Court of Moscow at 15:00 Moscow time,” Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told Interfax.

Police had stopped Navalny early Friday as he was headed to a campaign rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, where at least one other rally leader was also detained — Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov. 

“I’m in a police station now and they’re going to accuse me of repeated violation of the procedure for holding a mass event,” Navalny told VOA’s Russian service reporter Danila Galperovich earlier Friday. “It means almost for sure they will arrest me after the court will hear my case. I don’t know when.”

Police in Nizhny Novgorod, about 260 miles (417 kilometers) east of Moscow, had cordoned off the campaign rally site hours before the event was to begin and removed a Navalny campaign tent.

Despite the police actions, hundreds of Navalny’s supporters rallied Friday in the provincial city in protest. Images from social media showed protesters walking on a central street while loud music from an officially sanctioned concert blared nearby. 

Call for reform

Navalny’s detention came as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights issued a memorandum saying Russian authorities should revise the country’s freedom of assembly law, which, he says, has become more restrictive in recent years.

“As a result, the authorities have rejected a high number of requests to hold public assemblies,” said Commissioner Nils Muiznieks in the published memorandum. “Over the past year, there have been many arrests of people participating in protests, even if they did not behave unlawfully, as well as a growing intolerance toward ‘unauthorized’ events involving small numbers of participants and even of single-person demonstrations. 

“This runs counter to Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and it weakens the guarantees contained in its own Constitution concerning the right to freedom of assembly,” Muiznieks said.

Russia is one of 47 member countries in the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, but routinely dismisses its criticism.

‘Trend toward deterioration’

Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign team have been harassed and attacked numerous times by police and Kremlin supporters. In April, a man threw a chemical sanitizer in the Russian opposition leader’s face, causing a chemical burn that required eye surgery and left him partially blind.

Navalny supporter Nikolai Lyaskin was reportedly attacked in Moscow this month with an iron pipe.

In an exclusive interview with VOA reporter Galperovich on September 26, Navalny expressed dismay at the repressive trend.  

“We currently see a trend toward deterioration: At first it was fines, then administrative arrests, and now it is fabrication of criminal charges [and] house arrest,” he said.

Navalny said the trend is reminiscent of how Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Purge began in 1937.

“The capabilities of propaganda are mostly exhausted: You turn on the TV, which from morning until night is talking about beautiful North Korea, awful Ukraine, ‘gay’ Europe, et cetera. It is already impossible there [on TV] to fan the flames higher. Therefore, they are using repression to take people off the streets, to intimidate them,” Navalny said.

Challenging Putin

Navalny plans to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia’s March presidential election, though Putin has made no official announcement to run in a bid to continue his 17 years as leader.

The Russian opposition leader has been campaigning in cities across the country despite the central election commission declaring him ineligible because of a suspended prison sentence. Navalny’s supporters and numerous independent analysts back up his view that the sentence was politically motivated.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on September 21 demanded that Navalny be allowed to take part in the elections and that the fraud case against him and opposition politician Pyotr Ofitserov be re-examined.

In the interview Tuesday with Galperovich, Navalny expressed doubt that Russian authorities would act on the European ministers’ demand.

“I do not think that international structures can affect that much; at least, we have not in recent years seen international structures somehow straightforwardly affecting the internal political situation in Russia,” Navalny said.

But he said the resolution was satisfying nonetheless. “It is probably the best of all possible rulings we could hope for,” he said. “It quite clearly and distinctly shows that, first of all, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights was not implemented and, secondly, that there is a demand there for my admission to the elections.”

The European Court of Human Rights had demanded Navalny’s 2013 fraud case be retried because it violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial in July that resulted in the same verdict and a suspended sentence.

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Analysts: Russia May Be Helping Catalonia Secessionists

Catalonia’s secessionists, who are trying to organize an independence vote from Spain on Sunday, may be getting aid from Russia as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy to destabilize the European Union, according to European Union analysts.

Spain’s central government has deployed thousands of police to contain expected disorder. They have threatened local officials who support the referendum with stiff fines and jail. Spain’s constitutional court has declared the pending vote illegal.

Despite what some see as a heavy-handed response by Madrid, the United States and most EU governments have backed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his efforts to keep Spain united.

Russian state media have disseminated reports consistently favorable to Catalan independence in a move some analysts consider to be Moscow’s latest attempt to interfere in Western electoral processes.

The Kremlin has taken no public position on the referendum, calling it an “internal” matter for Spain.

Russia’s use of hacked information and dissemination of “fake news,” however, has been detected in recent Western electoral events,  including the 2016 U.S. elections, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the just-concluded German elections.

“It’s not that Russia necessarily wants the independence of Catalonia. What it’s principally seeking is to foment divisions to gradually undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” said Brett Schaffer, an analyst of the Alliance to Safeguard Democracy, a project supported by the German Marshall Fund, which monitors pro-Kremlin information networks.

The Russian social media outlet Voice of Europe (@V_of_Europe) has run such headlines as “The EU refuses to intervene in Catalonia even as Spain violates basic human rights,” calling Catalonia’s referendum “a time bomb that threatens to destroy the EU.”

The internationally broadcast Russian Television, or RT, alleged on September 20 that a “state of siege” has been imposed on Catalonia and dubbed cruise liners chartered to house additional police agents being deployed to the Catalonia as “Ships of Repression.”

The Russian digital newspaper Vzglyad borrowed a page from the Western media’s treatment of uprisings against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, with the September 20 headline “Spain brutally suppresses the Catalan Spring.”

Some editorials and Kremlin-sponsored academics took note of how the U.S. and EU neglected to recognize a Russian-sponsored Crimean referendum approving reunification with Russia and compared that with their current indifference toward the Catalan vote.

Catalan secessionist politician Enric Folch, who is international secretary of the Catalan Solidarity Party for Independence, has said on Russian media that a Catalan state would support Moscow in world forums and recognize the independence of territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, which separated from Georgia with Russian support.

Folch was a star participant at a Kremlin-sponsored conference of independence movements in Moscow last year.

David Alendete, an investigative reporter with the newspaper El Pais, said the conference was organized by a Russian lawyer who is defending Russian computer hackers arrested in Spain and is wanted by the FBI in connection with the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election campaign in the U.S.

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Istanbul Taxi Cameras Prompt Surveillance Concerns

In Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, cameras are being installed inside taxis in a move city authorities claim will provide security for both drivers and passengers. But with the ongoing crackdown over last year’s failed coup locking up more than 60,000 people and purging nearly 200,000 from their jobs, fears are growing that the measure is the latest effort to extend surveillance and control over the people.

An advertisement touts the benefits of Istanbul’s Itaxi. New taxis will be fitted with GPS tracking to allow drivers to find the quickest and cheapest route, as well as equipment to pay by credit card – all measures, the advert assures, aimed at enhancing passengers’ experiences.

The new taxis were announced to great fanfare. But the installation of a large digital camera in each vehicle, which authorities say will protect both drivers and passengers, is sparking controversy.

When you get in a taxi, the camera is clearly visible. What is unclear is whether it records sound as well as images, and where the images go. A driver VOA spoke to was more than happy with the device, although he admits he does not know who is watching.

” The new system is what is needed. I had an incident on Sunday night. I was attacked by a customer. If this system had been active, I would have been saved right away or the attacker wouldn’t have dared to attack,” the driver said. “There is a camera system and a panic button now.”

Not everyone in Istanbul appears so convinced. Another person VOA talked to questioned the motives behind the initiative.

“Some bad guys are stealing money from the taxi drivers or taxi drivers sometimes do violence against the women in the cabs, things like that, I think,” said the person who did not want to be identified. “If they do this for the real criminals then it’s not a bad idea. But we have doubts about [whether] our government, or policemen are doing this about the real criminals or not. A witch hunt is happening in Turkey now. So if they are using [this] for things like that, then of course it’s not a good idea to have things like that in the cabs.”

Failed coup attempt

Nearly every week there are trials for people accused of being involved in last year’s failed coup. Currently over 60,000 people languish in jail on coup plotting charges. Last year, 4,000 were prosecuted for defaming the president. Under emergency powers introduced following the botched military takeover, sweeping new electronic surveillance has been introduced, according to law professor Yaman Akdeniz of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. He has been studying the rise of surveillance culture, and warns concerns over the new taxis may be well-founded.

“Nowadays, something like this looks very suspicious because we have no idea where the data is transferred to or whether they have face recognition technology or voice recognition technology,” Akdeniz said. ” A lot of people are being investigated and prosecuted for allegedly defaming the president of Turkey. Because increasingly people are under surveillance and people don’t know what sort of technology or what sort of things are deployed by the government to monitor the citizens and it will get worse.”

There is a growing sense of concern seeping into Turkish society regarding surveillance. With the ongoing government crackdown and continuing prosecutions for insulting the president, any new innovation involving surveillance technology seems destined to be viewed with suspicion.

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Russian Opposition Leader Detained by Police

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained by police as he left his Moscow home Friday to attend a pre-election rally in a provincial town.

Russia holds a presidential election in March that incumbent Vladimir Putin is widely expected to contest. Navalny hopes to run despite Russia’s central election commission declaring him ineligible because of a suspended prison sentence that he says was politically motivated.

Navalny said on social media Friday that police had detained him in the lobby of his apartment block and told him they wanted to interview him at a police station.

The press service of Moscow’s interior ministry was cited by the TASS news agency as saying Navalny had been detained because of his “repeated calls to take part in unsanctioned public events.”

The authorities say opposition protests must be pre-approved by them, but Navalny has in the past said that the Russian constitution enshrines the right to freely hold such events.

On Friday, he denied the police’s latest allegations, writing on social media “I’ve never done that.”

Navalny had been scheduled to address a pre-election rally in the city of Nizhny Novgorod later Friday, part of a series of regional events he hoped would help him build support for his presidential run.

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U.S. Confirms Ambassador to Moscow at Crucial Time

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Jon Huntsman as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, filling a void at a critical tie in U.S.-Russian relations.

Huntsman is a former governor of the U.S. state of Utah who previously served as ambassador to Singapore and China.

The confirmation was unanimous and swift, with Democrats and Republicans joining in a rare consensus to support President Donald Trump’s choice for the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow. The Washington Post quoted Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin as saying Trump could not have made a better choice than Huntsman.

The new U.S. ambassador will arrive in Moscow as tensions remain high between the U.S. and Russia on issues that include allegations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections and interference in eastern Ukraine.

Trump has rejected allegations by political opponents that his campaign colluded with the Russians.

Huntsman testified this month before the Senate Foreign Relations committee and said there is, in his words, “no question” that Moscow interfered in last year’s presidential election.

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Turkey Says Would Release US Pastor in Exchange for Gulen

Turkey says it would release American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been detained for nearly a year, if the United States extradited Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for last year’s failed coup attempt.

“They say ‘give us the pastor’.  You have a preacher [Gulen] there. Give him to us, and we will try [Brunson] and give him back,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, and his wife, Norine, were arrested for alleged immigration violations in October 2016.  She was released, while his charges have been upgraded to supporting Gulen’s network, which Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization.

The couple ran a Christian church in the Aegean city of Izmir.

Norine met with U.S. Secretary of State of Rex Tillerson during his visit last month to Ankara. Tillerson said then that Brunson had been “wrongfully imprisoned”.

A decree last August gave Erdogan the power to extradite foreigners in exchange for Turkish prisoners abroad in “situations where it is necessary for national security or in the country’s interests.”  Turkey has repeatedly asked the United States to extradite Pennsylvania-based Gulen, accusing him of organizing the failed military coup last year.

U.S. relations with Turkey have soured recently over a number of issues, including what the U.S. sees as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

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Switzerland Tests Delivery by Drone in Populated Areas

Drones will help deliver toothbrushes, deodorant and smartphones to Swiss homes this fall as part of a pilot project, the first of its kind over a densely populated area.

Drone firm Matternet, based in Menlo Park, California, said Thursday it’s partnering on the Zurich project with Mercedes-Benz’s vans division and Swiss e-commerce startup Siroop. It’s been approved by Switzerland’s aviation authority.

Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos says the drones will take items from a distribution center and transport them between 8 to 16 kilometers to awaiting delivery vans. The van drivers then bring the packages to homes. Raptopoulos says drones will speed up deliveries, buzzing over congested urban streets or natural barriers like Lake Zurich.

 

The pilot comes as Amazon, Google and Uber have also been investing in drone delivery research.

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As Germany Vows to Speed Integration, Refugees Say Unfazed by Rise of Far Right

The influx of over a million asylum-seekers into Germany in 2015 is widely seen as driving the upsurge in support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or AfD party, which gained 13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. The government hopes to stem that rise by integrating the refugees as quickly as possible.

Among the wave of asylum seekers entering in 2015 was 24-year-old Dilshad. He fled his hometown of Sinjar in Iraq as Islamic State swept across the region. After struggling to find permanent accommodation, is now living in a shelter for the homeless.

He says he’s not bothered by the rise of the far right.

“After coming from Iraq, where there was fear, Germany is not a place where there is fear. It follows democratic principles. I thank ‘Mama’ Merkel on behalf of myself and all the refugees,” he told VOA in an interview.

On the street outside the shelter in the eastern outskirts of Berlin, Alternative for Germany campaign posters still hang from the lampposts. One shows a pregnant white woman — the caption declaring “New Germans? We’ll make those ourselves.”

Gesa Massur, who helps manage the homeless shelter, says Dilshad is lucky — there are many other young refugees neglected by the state.

“I think this is really dangerous because maybe some young men, they don’t know what to do and they get on a bad way,” she said.

New migrants are trying to help one another stay on the right path. A government program called “multaka” or ‘meeting point’ in Arabic, trains Syrian and Iraqi migrants to act as guides in Berlin’s museums. They teach fellow refugees about Germany — and how to build a new life.

“It’s not about what’s inside the museums. It’s about who is making the tour, and what kind of reaction, what kind of interaction there will be between the people. We’re telling what we learned as a newcomer,” says Tony Al-Arkan, a qualified architect from Damascus who came to Germany as a student.

Fellow Syrian Salma Jreige conducts tours around the Museum of German History.

“Germany after the Second World War was completely destroyed,” she noted. “How the Germans rebuilt their country is a very important lesson for us to learn. Right there, there’s an object from Damascus. When people see that their culture is being shown in museums, this gives them the feeling that their culture is being respected. Without that, integration is impossible.”

Through programs like those at Berlin’s museums, the government aims to integrate the refugees as fast as possible.

The scale of the task may seem overwhelming. For newcomers like Tony and Salma, the solution lies not only in support from the state, but with the migrants helping each other.

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