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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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
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 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.