This story comes from NPR’s Rough Translation podcast, which explores how ideas we wrestle with in the U.S. are being discussed in the rest of the world.
Sophia Lierenfeld didn’t set out to give dating advice to Syrian refugees.
The Berlin-based acting teacher and relationship coach wanted to do her part to help refugees integrate into German society. Assimilation is a big issue in German politics these days. Her self-funded workshop, Improv Without Borders, gathers weekly to let Europeans and refugees do improvisational theater together.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, about a dozen men and women from Afghanistan, Syria, France, Germany and elsewhere milled about awkwardly while Lierenfeld waltzed among them and gave out hugs. After some warm-up games, they broke off into groups to perform skits. A big part of improv involves trying on new versions of oneself – an activity that, in their regular lives, can come with high stakes.
Gulahmad Gafuri, a medical student from Afghanistan speaks hesitantly, if at all, until Lierenfeld assigns him a skit to tell a childhood anecdote in an improvised nonsense language. In the made-up language, it turns out he has tons to say.
Raghd Hadid, a 19-year-old from Damascus wearing a headscarf, says she’s there to practice “a future self” where she is “strong, not weak, not shy.”
And then there’s Aktham Abulhusn. What he really wants is to find a girlfriend. Unlike the other Syrian refugees in the workshop, Abulhusn is not Muslim. He’s Druze, which makes him an unlikely prospect for most of the Syrian Muslim women he meets in Germany. Druze are a minority group in Syria, and in Berlin, the pool is even smaller. Abulhusn would be happy to date a German girl — if one of them would only give him a chance.
Abulhusn’s journey: The life of Abu Techno
There was a time in Abulhusn’s life when finding love seemed like too much of a risk. For years in Syria — when Abulhusn went by the name of Abu Techno — he had good friends who were girls, but he avoided getting too serious with them.
He’d earned his DJ-esque nickname because of his proficiency with the hidden cameras that he used to film uprisings in al-Sweida, his hometown. Al-Sweida was then fiercely loyal to President Bashar Assad, and these videos exposed early dissent from within the president’s political base.
Abulhusn says if government agents had discovered his cameras hidden in pens and watches, he wouldn’t be alive today. So during this dangerous period, he made a decision about his love life: He wouldn’t have one.
He’d seen families suffer when their loved ones were arrested. Or worse, wives were arrested to force their husbands to turn themselves in. As a young man, Abulhusn went to co-ed parties (which, he says, were very chaste) and had friends who were girls.
But good friendships have a way of escalating into marriage proposals — and he always put a brake on it before they did.
Abulhusn fled Syria in 2014 after he was detained a second time by authorities and he feared for his safety. He has advantages of which most refugees can only dream. Accepted to a masters program in electrical engineering in a German university, he arrived legally, on a plane, and spent his first year in intense language study. To make sure he wouldn’t be sent back to Syria, he reapplied for a refugee visa.
It took a while, but his life is finally starting to look less rocky. He tends bar at his university. He speaks highly proficient English and German. But if one thing is harder in peaceful Berlin than in war-torn Syria, it is navigating the lexicon of relationships.
Abulhusn has tried online dating. He’s gone on outings a Facebook group arranged to introduce refugees and locals. (It was from that group that he learned about Improv Without Borders.)
Last year, he fell into a conversation with a German medical student who asked him for his number, and they even went on one date together to see a football match with some of her friends. He liked her – thought she was cute – and she was intensely curious about Syria. He had high hopes.
But after a couple of exchanges, his texts went unanswered.
Doing a post-mortem on a date gone bad can be maddening for anyone. Was it my hair? My breath? Something I said? But the spiral of questions can be even more desperate if you’re a foreigner.
Abulhusn couldn’t help but wonder: had he done something culturally inappropriate? Or was his refugee status itself a blemish? Despite all his efforts to toe the line, were women associating him with the sexual predator stereotype of refugee men that Germans read about in the news, a trope that got frequent play during this year’s presidential election?
The love audit
Lierenfeld, the improv teacher, watches Abulhusn become looser and more outgoing week by week. But he tells her he can’t seem to translate that relaxed workshop version of himself into ordinary life.
So Lierenfeld, 28, offers to give him a flirt coaching session — the chance to brutally break down his game and show him how to improve it.
They arrange to meet at a downtown coffee shop in Berlin’s hip district of Mitte. At their tiny, square table, they look like one more couple on a date. Lierenfeld says she likes her sessions to be as realistic as possible.
Abulhusn tells her about his puzzling failure with the med student, and Lierenfeld tells him to give her his phone. She wants to see the text exchange for herself.
As he hunts for the texts, Lierenfeld gets right down to business: “Can you tell me about the whole sex stuff? Do you have some one night stands in Berlin?”
Abulhusn admits that he’s a virgin, “even by kissing.” He’s never kissed a girl on the mouth, he says.
“Wow,” Lierenfeld says.
Abulhusn says he believes that there are no important cultural differences between himself and the women he wants to date in Germany. He values things like mutual respect and honesty and equal rights for women – he was raised to believe that in his Druze community, he says.
But in Germany, the simple fact of his virginity will itself prove to be a divide. Lierenfeld studies the texts from the medical student and delivers what is obvious to her, but surprising to Abulhusn.
“From her messages,” she explains, “she seemed to be really interested in sex with you. That’s obvious to me. She’s inviting you to cook together, which means you’re already at her place.”
She tells Abulhusn the problem was probably not that he’d done anything wrong or inappropriate. He’d just failed to “make a move.” The medical student probably felt rejected and cut him off.
“But truthfully, I would feel scared to suggest such a thing,” Abulhusn says. “If she says, ‘Oh God, he’s just trying to get me to bed, and I’m just trying to be nice because he’s a refugee.'”
He’d be mortified to be lumped in with the refugee stereotype of a man “who is always harassing girls,” he says.
Lierenfeld gathers her thoughts.
“I’m going to say this in a bit of a mean way,” she says. “Do you understand your arrogance here? I understand your feelings, but there’s one part of what you’re saying that is really arrogant — which is that you have to think and decide for her. She’s a grown-up person.”
Abulhusn looks shocked.
“I never thought of that in this way!” he says.
“That’s why I said it in such a straight way,” Lierenfeld says.
As a traveler in a foreign country, it can be easier to figure out what not to do than what to do. Abulhusn understands that “no means no.”
His problem is almost the opposite: He’s too protective of women to comfortably flirt with them.
Abulhusn says that this time with Lierenfeld transformed the way he sees himself. He now makes it a point to try not to cross his arms when he’s talking to women. And if during all these years in Germany he’s been afraid to come across as dangerous, now he thinks a bit more about how to make himself feel safe.