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Berlin's Traditional Fireworks Display Stresses Migrants


Several European capital cities canceled or cut back their New Year's fireworks. They didn't want large crowds to attract terrorists. Germany's capital, Berlin, was not one of those places. Huge crowds gathered there, a sign of confidence, although it also had a side effect. Berlin has become home to refugees for whom the crackle and boom of fireworks triggers disturbing memories. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The sharp pops and loud booms that go on all night can send even hardiest souls into a panic. Fireworks of all kinds are flying everywhere - shot from rooftops, out of windows and on the streets. It sounds like a pitched battle, and I've seen a few. For people like Inana Alassar, who fled to Berlin to escape war, the effects can be paralyzing.

INANA ALASSAR: Like what's happening now, for instance. I get nervous, and I don't breathe so good. And I start sweating, and I open my eyes like crazy, and I don't know. And I sometimes cry.

NELSON: The young Syrian woman is working as my Arabic language translator on this night. And she isn't the only migrant gripped by fear or experiencing flashbacks.

Mental health professionals here estimate up to half of the million asylum-seekers who came to Germany last year suffer from depression or have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Psychiatrist Gis Rochow volunteers at a refugee camp in Berlin. She handed out earplugs and posted flyers explaining the noisy celebration that was coming.

GIS ROCHOW: There is such a lot of noise and such a lot of fireworks, and people don't care, really, much about other people not to be hurt or injured by the fireworks they use.

NELSON: Rochow adds she was thrilled when authorities announced the fireworks ban around the camp. It was one of dozens no fireworks zones set up near refugee shelters across Germany. But Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller was adamant his city's raucous tradition not be changed.

MICHAEL MUELLER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He tells me that even though he doesn't personally enjoy the crazy fireworks tradition, it would be wrong to take it away from Berlin residents who do. Mueller encouraged the 60,000 new refugees living in Berlin to celebrate with their German neighbors, but camp resident Hassan Biko couldn't join in. The Syrian-born Palestinian found the noise disturbing. He stayed indoors and tried to put the war out of his mind.

HASSAN BIKO: If I will hear something like this, I will just remember what I've seen in Syria during the war - the blood and bodies, pieces of bodies and the crying babies and the scared people. You know, it's something when you remember, you can't sleep. Actually, it's very difficult.

NELSON: Also haunting him is a night in March 2013, when the rebels and Syrian forces battled for control over his Damascus neighborhood.

BIKO: That time I was holding my small son Aghyed in my hands. That time I was feeling his heart beating on my chest.

NELSON: Biko says he worried his son would die from fright, if not from the shells that rocked their fourth floor apartment. He says in lieu of toasting the new year here in Berlin with his German neighbors, he prayed at midnight for happiness and peace.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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