How locals are helping refugees navigate Hamburg’s crowded housing market

About 50,000 refugees live in Hamburg, Germany's second largest city. More than half of them currently stay in public housing. They are supposed to move after six months; but on average, refugees remain in these temporary solutions for more than three years.

How locals are helping refugees navigate Hamburg's crowded housing market
Housing space is scarce in densely populated Hamburg. Photo: Patrik Stollarz/AFP

Hamburg’s housing market makes it difficult to find affordable housing – especially for foreigners. The initiative Wohnbrücke Hamburg tries to support refugees in finding their own living space and to reduce fears and prejudices in the minds of landlords. 

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

The diamond-cut glass stones of the chandelier scatter the light in fragile patterns across the ceiling of the large living room. It is one of the first pieces of furniture chosen by the five-member Al Habbal family for their new apartment.

They only moved in a few weeks ago and have not yet finished furnishing all the rooms. The two daughters share a room with large windows facing the street, while the parents sleep with the youngest son in the other bedroom. The balcony which adjoins the living room is big enough for a laundry rack and the three hookahs that belong to the father of the family. From the living room window one can look out over the neighbours’ gardens, out to where a single palm tree stands on a mowed meadow.

The family used to live in Syria. “We lived 100 metres from the Mediterranean Sea – but the people around us hated each other,” says Abudi Al Habbal. The 47-year-old worked as an engineer in Syria, and during the war he fled with his family to Lebanon. From there, with the support of the UNHCR aid network, they were given seats on a plane to Europe, landing in Germany on April 6th 2014.

Four of the five members of the Al Habbal family. Photo: Hannah Lesch

After their arrival in Germany, refugees are first taken to an initial reception facility. There they are registered and receive medical care. The Al Habbal family moved immediately into a small apartment in a refugee shelter in Hamburg.

There were still some tenants living in the house who had refused to move out when the building was converted into a refugee shelter. “They did not want to have refugees as neighbours. We had very bad experiences with old people there. We were new in Germany at the time and these encounters scared us very much,” Al Habbal reports.

A neighbour called him a “half-human”, and as he talks about it today, one can still see the anger and horror he felt. Further restrictions contributed to the family's feeling of unease in the accommodation: “Our apartment was checked unannounced, we were not allowed to hang anything on the walls,” Al Habbal remembers.

Then the family of five moved again to another public housing shelter. “The second accommodation was new and there was plenty of room for the children to play. But we weren't allowed to stay there for long either,” says the father.

The family looked for a home on their own and early on received support from Christine Becker, a Hamburg native. Becker has shoulder-length blonde hair, a centre parting and wears large glasses with a brown rim. “She is my sister,” says Al Habbal. Becker laughs, but does not contradict him.

The 55-year-old met the family six years ago, when she got to know the family whilst helping the two daughters with their homework through a volunteer programme. “Since then she has been with us frequently and also supports us by phone, WhatsApp and so on. She is part of the family,” adds the Al Habbals’ 15-year-old daughter.

Christine Becker, a volunteer with Wohnbrücke Hamburg. Photo: Hannah Lesch

'30,000 other people are also waiting for an apartment'

Together with Becker, the family started writing applications for apartments. The largest municipal housing provider in Hamburg is the SAGA group, which owns one-sixth of all apartments. The family put itself on their waiting lists. Al Habbal remembers: “Staff there told us: 30,000 other people are also waiting for an apartment.”

In 2018 the 1.89 million people of Hamburg were staying in about 1 million households. Housing space is scarce in this densely populated city.

“According to a staff member of a specialist office for housing emergencies, there are an average of 150 interested people for every apartment that becomes available,” says Alena Thiem. The 36-year old has alert eyes, which are sometimes covered by her straight brown hair. She coordinates the Wohnbrücke Hamburg project, which means “housing bridge”.

The goal of Wohnbrücke is to support refugees in their search for flats. The project does not rent apartments itself but mediates between landlords or housing companies and refugees.


In Hamburg, more than 13,000 refugees with the right to move into their own homes are still staying in public housing. They acquired this right by either having a residence entitlement, living in shared accommodation for at least six months with a temporary suspension of deportation and the future outlook of staying at least one more year in Germany, a family member having their own income, or for other reasons. A further 10,000 are currently living in public housing without this authorization.

“The demand will certainly not be able to be met even with the current new building projects. Housing shortage is an issue in our city,” explains Thiem.

“Every month, two or three families I know move away. Whoever gets the chance moves somewhere else,” reports Al Habbal. He often got overwhelmed trying to find an apartment. “For Germans it is difficult – for me it is a catastrophe.”

Thiem also sees these challenges: “People who are just starting to learn German and are on welfare benefits and have no experience of living in our country have a particularly hard time finding a place to live. This is exactly where our work begins,” she says.

Every refugee household that registers with Wohnbrücke needs a ‘housing pilot’, a person who offers the landlords an additional contact person during the tenancy. The housing pilots are fluent German speakers who bring along experiences as tenants in Hamburg and try to support the families as volunteers – like Christine Becker.

With support from the Wohnbrücke and Becker, the Al Habbal family found their new apartment in Hamburg city centre. After searching for a home for more than five years, they now have an apartment where they can stay.

'Because home is a place to start'

The Wohnbrücke initiative was launched in November 2015. Since then, successful mediation has enabled 785 households to leave their public housing and move into their own homes. This corresponds to 2,390 people.

But the mediation needs the right timing and a bit of luck. At present, around 400 households are still looking for homes with the Wohnbrücke Hamburg, i.e. they are either on the waiting list, or already in the process of mediation.

The Wohnbrücke belongs to the not-for-profit association Lawaetz-wohnen&leben gGmbH. The motto of this association is “Because home is a place to start”. Having your own living space is the fundamental basis for taking an active part in social life and integrating into social and cultural contexts, says its brochure. An apartment is the prerequisite for being able to pursue a job or an education consistently.

The group of companies not only provides housing for refugees. Other initiatives also try to find housing for women from women's shelters, for young people from sheltered youth homes or for people who have been affected by homelessness.

Since living space is so essential, compromises must be made sometimes. “Often three rooms and 75 square meters are the best I can offer a family of five,” explains Thiem. The average size of an apartment in Hamburg is about 75 square metres. However, most people in Hamburg live alone, and only about 18 percent of households are living with children.

“A major challenge in finding an apartment was the size of the family. This limited the options in Hamburg even further,” says housing pilot Becker. But she and the Al Habbal family were lucky; the new apartment is around 95 square meters.

The Al Habbal family in their apartment with Christine Becker. Photo: Hannah Lesch

Becker was often frustrated by the search for apartments: “The fact that Abudi was still in retraining and the family had a foreign name made it particularly difficult.” Usually she contacted apartments initially in her name, and “as soon as I explained that I was looking for the Al Habbal family, communication often dried up. But openly, these prejudices were rarely expressed.”

To diminish these prejudices with landlords is also a goal of the Wohnbrücke. The housing pilots play an important role in this. Since the beginning of the project, more than 900 volunteers have been trained as housing pilots, learned legal basics and how to create application folders for apartments.

The housing pilots should not act as guardians of the refugees. Thiem describes their role as mediators and supporters: “Living is different all over the world – in Syria, the apartments are larger, the neighbours are further away, the architecture is completely different. Thanks to the communication and exchange, everyone can learn from each other here.”

The landlords with whom Wohnbrücke works volunteer to join the initiative. But even here, preparatory talks sometimes focus on concerns about different cultures, “for example, prejudices about Arab families receiving constant visitors,” explains Thiem.

Such issues need to be discussed and solutions found. “As soon as we create encounters, many prejudices are immediately washed away. The images you had in your head disappear when people stand in front of you,” says Thiem.

“I see the fact critically that our work is necessary,” reflects Thiem. “We live in a society that is not free of prejudice and we live in a metropolis where housing is a scarce commodity. The world would be a better place if our work was not necessary.”

Becker also thinks it is questionable that refugees seem to need a housing pilot to succeed: “If you look at it politically, it shouldn't be necessary at all for me to help the family find an apartment. But the reality is different and for example for arrangements with the landlord such support makes sense,” she concludes.

For family man Abudi Al Habbal, the move and the new address in Hamburg mean a lot. “This apartment is like my country, like my home. I had to flee my country. I don't want to leave my apartment,” he says.

Through this achievement, he can now pursue other goals. Al Habbal has taken a retraining course to become an electrician in recent years and will soon enter the profession: “I can work and be successful because I am so satisfied here.”

Hannah Lesch is a freelance journalist in Hamburg, mainly writing about health, science and society for Der Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung and NDR, among others. She particularly enjoys writing about people who have found solutions – in Germany or abroad. Since she spent a year working in media literacy for the Deutsche Welle Academy in Namibia, she has also been involved in this area.

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How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.