Mahmoud Aldaas from Damascus

Mahmoud Aldaas, a web developer from Damascus, arrived in Hamburg in October 2014. Neither quick nor easy, his journey took in Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Austria with several months waiting in some countries. He and a friend eventually arrived in Bremen, before presenting themselves to police and being allocated to Hamburg.

Even then he wasn’t sure about his status: for almost a year, Mahmoud was waiting to find out whether he would be returned to Hungary.

Mahmoud has since been able to settle in a little bit more, although he is still waiting for a decision on his asylum claim and work permit. I spoke to him about how he’s managing to contribute his skills and expertise in difficult circumstances, how he arrived, and of course: why Hamburg? If you want to listen to the full interview, subscribe to the podcast.

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India Week – talking to Anita Shukla

When I first started this blog, the plan was to do interviews just with non-German people, asking them why they came to Hamburg. Well not for the first time, I have decided to interview somebody from Germany: Anita Shukla.

This is because Anita Shukla is able to give a unique perspective from her own experience working with internationals, in particular Indians. And with India Week coming up (block your diary from 2nd to 8th November by the way), what better time to take a look at Hamburg’s ties to India?

What is it about India that makes it such a sought-after trading partner? Anita Shukla told me a bit about India, herself, and Hamburg’s relations with India.

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“Hamburg is a family friendly city” – Andre from Jakarta

Andre Sasongko is a freelance database developer from Jakarta, Indonesia. He is an entrepreneur, freelance database developer, and father of two. I met up with Andre at Shhared coworking space in Altona, where he told me what brought him to Hamburg.

I first met Andre at a Hamburg Startups mixer event and was curious to hear his story. After leaving his native Indonesia, he studied in Wisconsin, USA, and worked there for several years. The world was his oyster. He chose Germany, then Hamburg, and hasn’t looked back since. His positive outlook on Hamburg and life generally make him an inspiring conversation partner.

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Paul Watmough’s ongoing creative journey

I know from my own experience that life can be hard for a Brit in Hamburg. Whilst we are admired for our teapots, phone boxes, red buses and royals, we are laughed out of the kitchen, played off the football field, and on the Autobahn we were overtaken a long time ago and hitched a ride with the Germans instead.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find that one of the people shaping the brand identity of leading German car manufacturers – almost an Ersatz for the flag that Germans are very reluctant to fly – is my compatriot Paul Watmough, from Bradford, UK. He had a lot to say that cheered me up.

My first meeting with Paul is exactly what you would expect of two Brits: we meet in a pub (or at least a café that serves beer). Paul orders a Rotbier (a dark beer that at least optically resembles an ale). Neither of us thinks twice before ordering half a litre (only sixty-eight millilitres short of a pint). We exchange the short versions of why we are in Hamburg whilst beating about a bush as rich and voluminous as Paul’s luscious beard.

At our second meeting we get to the point, namely: Why Hamburg?

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Two lovers in Germany’s loveliest city

Rebecca, a rocket scientist (yes, rocket scientist) from near Cambridge in the UK, met Dutchman Reinier, a grid analyst at Vattenfall, by chance in summer 2013. At the time, Rebecca wasn’t even living in Hamburg and Reinier had only lived here for just over a year.

Today, they are a happy hard-working couple enjoying the Hamburg urban hubub and their international lifestyle.

I wanted to know what brought each of them to Hamburg in the first place, and what keeps them here. Why Hamburg?

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Visibility and Hamburgers in the Taverna. Sabela from Madrid.

Sabela Garcia burst onto the scene – or my scene at least – around the end of 2013. All of a sudden, I’m not quite sure how, her posts starting appearing in my Twitter stream. At the same time, the company she works for – Appmotion, a Hamburg agency that does mobile marketing and apps – found its way onto my radar too. And that’s exactly what Sabela is for: since coming to Hamburg and joining Appmotion she has found her niche as a Visibility Manager.

I met up with Sabela at her employer, Appmotion, to find out more about what she does but also: of all places in the world, why Hamburg?

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“There’s no reason why Germany shouldn’t be a land of opportunity!”

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Alex Ahom took his first steps as an entrepreneur on the streets of Hamburg around Altona and the Schanze: walking from boutique to bistro to restaurant to record shop to café to cobbler to deli to diner to tailor, asking business owners – in English – to explain to him how to start a company in Germany. Many shopkeepers were happy to help; one shop owner in particular explained the different types of company provided for by German law, and how to go about setting one up, before directing Alex to the Handelskammer (the Chamber of Commerce).

So even before Shhared – Alex’ business idea – was a legal entity, it had become a reality. Alex’ persistence, his refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer, had yielded fruit:

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Hamburg’s surprisingly successful startup scene and how “Hamburg Startups” is flying the flag

Hamburg has long been a wealthy city, going right back to the times when it headed the Hanseatic League. Much of this wealth remains in the possession of long-established companies and old families. Adhering to values going back generations, this inner circle of elders is said to be sworn to a codex of honesty and honour, is characterised by understatement, favour action over words, and tend to be sceptical of new ideas and people from outside their ranks. Against that background – the old money, scepticism of lofty ideas in favour of tried and tested solutions, the inner circle of trusted friends – it might seem implausible for Hamburg to become a paradise for startups, or a hive of disruption and innovation. People from abroad might be especially wary.

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Diversity is creativity

“Should we fear Google?” – the headline on a tabloid newspaper last weekend. I sighted it whilst queuing for bread at the local bakery. Indeed, there is little more quintessentially German than queuing for bread in a bakery (surprising for an economic powerhouse); the Angst about all-knowing, all-seeing internet companies, vented largely at Google, is becoming equally quintessential.

Tabloid journalism in Germany is very creative, especially when thinking about what could go wrong. Even the CEO of the German media empire Axel Springer is scared, as he commented recently – and he wants us to be scared too.

A few days later I’m sat opposite Jeremy Tai Abbett, originally from Minnesota. Jeremy is Creative Evangelist at Google and his job is to channel Germans’ creativity into thinking about what can go right, and how Google and its products can make life better for them. Of course I was interested to find out why someone would take on such an apparently thankless task. But what I’m especially keen to find out is: Why Hamburg?

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Brightening up a gloomy city

Apart from the odd mention of gentrification on Wilhelmsburg, a river island that is home mostly to generations of poor immigrants and their descendants, the southern part of Hamburg is largely out of sight and out of mind. The Elbe, Hamburg’s industrial river, slices the city in two and is as much a psychological wall of water as a physical barrier, most of the attractions that constitute the city’s identity lying to the north. In recent years, the local government has been pumping money into projects to encourage people to make the “leap over the Elbe” and put southern Hamburg on the mental map.

I made the leap, taking the S-Bahn across the Elbe through Wilhelmsburg and Veddel to Harburg. After a short walk from the station I approached the red-brick university buildings, peering into the laboratories at the lab assistants in their white coats counting iron filings. The shaking platforms and centrifuges were gyrating and vibrating peacefully; the sterility a far cry from the gritty urbanism that this blog is supposed to be about. Seeing the Brightup logo I knew I had arrived at the Northern Institute of Technology Management (NIT) on the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) campus. The occasion for my leap across the Elbe: to meet Ana Cristina Agüero, a Costa Rican biotechnician, engineer, and entrepreneur. Ana showed me her office, introduced me to her colleagues (including the office dog) and we had a chat in the cafeteria below. My journey was nothing in comparison to her leap over the Atlantic.

What made her study at the NIT? Why did she become an entrepreneur? Why Hamburg? Continue reading Brightening up a gloomy city