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.
Job offer from deepblue
When I spoke to Mahmoud, he had just received a job offer from deepblue, an agency specialising in digital advertising. He first came into contact with the agency when, through publicity surrounding the work of a volunteer who does lots of work for refugees, the agency Scholz & Friends found out about Mahmoud and asked him for a CV. They passed him on to deepblue, a sister agency.
A group of strangers met each other just to help me, so I’m grateful to them.
Ina Wagner, Head of Human Resources, offered Mahmoud a three-month “orientation internship” and he has since been offered a job. He can start as soon as his work permit comes through – which, touch wood, will be soon. Without a work permit, he isn’t allowed to take on paid work here.
As Ina stressed in an article about Mahmoud on the Brigitte website, this wasn’t a charitable act but a case of deepblue recruiting a skilled developer. I would assume it shows a certain open-mindedness, though: I’m sure many agencies would choose the easy route and recruit via existing channels.
Since coming to Germany, Mahmoud has been learning German. Initially self-teaching, when offered the opportunity to take part in a course by a voluntary organisation he jumped at it. Many people would be surprised to find that prior to attaining a residency permit, people do not have the right to language lessons.
Front end developer
Mahmoud is a front end developer. He studied Computer Engineering for two years and has worked in the industry for ten years now. In case you’re wondering what a front end developer is, Mahmoud cleared that one up:
But he has a good understanding of the whole process:
I have good experience with graphic design and back end development too. That’s one thing that deepblue really like about me: I understood the concerns of other departments.
Generally, he said, in Syria there is less specialisation than in Germany and this broad understanding can be a good thing that employers value.
I asked what the greatest challenge to front end developers is these days. Mahmoud answered that it is the sheer wealth of different tools and the pace at which everything moves, making it necessary to reevaluate which tools you choose for almost every project. He sees the web as an “open ocean”, and you need to be learning every day to keep your head above water. This “learning mentality”, he says, helped him learn German quickly. (I can vouch for the fact that his German is coming along nicely!)
A growing startup scene in Damascus
Back in Damascus, Mahmoud had his own company and was active in the startup scene. I was surprised to find out that, despite the situation in Syria, for the past few years there has been a Startup Weekend in Damascus. Indeed, Mahmoud took part in it and his company helped fund it.
If you’re wondering what a startup weekend is: it’s an event format that is held in many cities worldwide (including Hamburg). Anyone can take part in developing an idea over the course of the weekend and teams present their ideas to a jury of experts at the end.
Asked to compare the startup scenes in Damascus and Hamburg, Mahmoud said:
Europe is a very welcoming space for startups but in Syria and the Middle East in general, it’s growing and getting a lot more attention. People are intrigued to find out about new startups. There are a lot of people over there who are trying to found startups.
Damascus – a beautiful, historic city but tensions are rising every day
Damascus, Mahmoud says, is beautiful, very historic, very eastern. Although he says the centre is relatively safe, the danger has been increasing since the beginning of hostilities in 2011. It must be devastating to see this happen to your home city, but Mahmood is very philosophical, responding simply: “That’s how it is.”
But pretty much anyone who can get out does so:
Whoever can leave, will leave. Every day there is bad news. It’s a game of politics, armies, bigger than people can handle.
He says that many people will likely return when the situation is safer:
Whenever things get better, when the war stops, I’m sure millions of Syrians will return to help and to rebuild.
“Negativity and racism are a dying mentality”
Meanwhile in Germany, Mahmoud says that in general people here are very open and welcoming.
The people of Germany have been great!
He accepts that the huge movement of people puts a lot of pressure on Germany and Europe in general, but says the world has got smaller and that these days, you can’t expect a problem to happen elsewhere and not to affect you.
I mentioned that there are two sides to the coin regarding Germany’s handling of the streams of people arriving. Whilst many Germans are very optimistic, there are incidents of negative reactions such as Pegida protests and even violent criminal attacks on refugee accommodation. Again, Mahmoud sees the bright side:
Negativity and racism are a dying mentality and will disappear sooner or later.
Favourite bits of Hamburg
Mahmoud’s favourite bits of Hamburg are the old parts, such as around Jungfernstieg, the Colonnaden, and near the Hafencity. I suppose this is not a surprise, given that he said Damascus is a very historic city.
Like many people I have spoken to for this blog, Mahmoud values Hamburg’s diversity:
I like the mix you find in Hamburg. People of all cultures. They’re very practical people: they don’t care where you come from, as long as you do what you have to do.
Finding the creative class where others daren’t look
On the “about” page of this blog, I ask whether internationals “… all use HSBC relocation services and travel first class”. As Mahmoud shows, the answer to this question is a firm “no”.
But he is nevertheless the kind of person cities are falling over themselves to attract: a highly-skilled professional; a friendly, thoughtful, intelligent guy. Die Welt called him a model refugee. His case shows that amongst the millions heading towards Europe, there is a rich seam of talent and creativity.
Not only does Mahmoud’s story tell us something about people newly arrived in Europe, but it tells us something about Germany, and how its self-image is changing. The group of strangers who came together to help him start contributing his talents show that optimism can win out over fear. Germany is showing us that the creative class is to be found where others are afraid to look.
How much longer can Germany’s self-image of a risk-averse, inward-looking nation survive with stories like Mahmoud’s?