People attend a ‘Yalla Hamburg’ workshop to discuss various activities taking place in the city Image Credit: Taran N. Khan

In a sunlit room in Hamburg, a group of young people took turns to cover a map of Hamburg with brigh yellow Post-It notes. Each of the scribbled lines on these listed an activity. “Bicycle Tour”, said one. “Open-Air Kino” fluttered close by, along with “Skate Park” , “Flea Market” and “Football Club”. The meeting was a workshop for Yalla Hamburg, a website that works as a guide to activities across the city. What sets it apart is that it is created by young people who arrived here as refugees.

“The idea of ‘Yalla’ is to help people — both locals and newcomers — join in the life of the city, and actively participate in what’s going on,” explains Mohammad Ghunaim, project coordinator, who runs the workshop. Anyone can join in the workshops that are meant to be a collaboration between residents and more recent arrivals. Together, they shoot and edit short videos featuring different activities that they have tried out, and upload these on the website and social media. “We focus on activities that are either free, or low-cost. They also have to be accessible by public transport,” says Ghunaim. The emphasis is on places and activities where participants will feel included and welcome, wherever they come from, and even if they don’t speak much German. “The idea is to help people feel at home in the city and integrate with it,” says Ghunaim, who himself arrived in Germany in 2015 as a refugee, fleeing the war in Syria.

Community centre

The workshops began in 2017 and are held in the proudly alternative locality of St Pauli, which is known for its graffiti-covered walls and eclectic vibe. It is a neighbourhood marked by a history of migration, explains Gesa Becher, who works for the community centre that hosts the ‘Yalla’ [a common expression in Arabic denoting “come on”] group. “The area has always had people from around the world, who came to work in the harbour and the docks,” says Becher. The building is regularly used by several local groups — for theatre and readings, political discussions and cooking sessions. “It is an open space in the heart of the city”, says Becher. While the ‘Yalla’ workshops are open to all, the group huddled around the board comprised young migrants from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

How long will I stay new? I live here now and I love it here, I want to be one with the culture.”

In part, ‘Yalla Hamburg’ is a resource for practical matters such as language classes for newcomers. But many videos are created simply as a guide to having fun and getting to know new people and places. For instance, a group of three participants edited a video they had shot earlier in the Museum of Hamburg History. The excursion had been suggested by Alice Almadni, 27, an architect from Syria who arrived in Germany nearly three years ago. “I work at the museum and realised that even people who have lived in Hamburg all their lives don’t know about this place,” she explained. Taking advantage of a free entry day, Almadni’s friends enjoyed learning about the creation of the port city and its historic connection with trade. She herself enjoys looking at the old photos of the churches of Hamburg, she said. “The art on them reminds me of the decorations on the Christian sites back in Syria.”

The workshops are also a way for participants to discover new sides to the city together. Ameer Aswad, 22, from Idlib, enjoys spending evenings in the buzzy neighbourhood of Schanzenviertel, a working class area now known for its clubs and grungy vibe. “It is like life back home, with people on the streets till late at night, and more social than other parts of Hamburg,” he smiles.

For Morsal Ahmadi, the ‘Yalla’ workshop led her to new places she would not have discovered on her own. Ahmadi’s family left their native Kabul four years ago. She now attends school and dreams of a career in the field of information technology. Through the workshop, she visited the idyllic suburb of Blankenese, a former fishing village. “It is very quiet and has beautiful views of the river,” she recalled. “There are not too many people, and I feel relaxed there, and forget everything.”

Most of the participants shoot short clips on their smartphones or tablets, learning the techniques as they go along. But Ramin Rasuli, 20, from Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, prefers to use a digital camera, and is serious about learning editing. “This is because I want to be an actor, singer and director”, he says. In his spare time, he also creates videos of himself lip-syncing to popular Bollywood tunes, and uploads them with German subtitles. The camaraderie in the room made it evident that the group had worked together before. But the activity still draws new participants, like Tair Memed, 14, from Macedonia, who had joined the workshop two days ago. “I am hoping to find someplace to go cycling,” he said, pointing to the note affixed to the map.

In part, the group offers a lens into the uneven transition made by the young migrants — from being refugees to residents.

Aswad points out that even after living in Hamburg for nearly two years, he is still considered a “newcomer”. “How long will I stay new?” he asks. “I live here now and I love it here, I want to be one with the culture.” But despite trying to connect with German people, he says, he has no friends his age. “When I tell my story to people, they look at me with pity. We don’t want to be treated with sadness, we just want to be normal,” he explains.

Like themselves

Almadni agrees that the disconnect with local communities seems wide at times. At school and during events and workshops, (including the Yalla group) they often end up meeting people like themselves — other refugees.

For these reasons, the moments of connection with local communities that emerge from their stories seem to be important. The very first workshop holds a special place in Becher’s memory. An all-girls group decided to participate in a class for “stand-up paddling”, navigating one of the many waterways that run through Hamburg. “They had such a great time that a lot of the girls participated in other mixed sessions too, which may not have happened otherwise,” she said. One of the groups attended a salsa class, an activity, that was popular in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, Becher says. “So we had these young people from around the world, and middle-aged German couples who do salsa every week with their friends all dancing together and having a great time.”

At the end of the workshop, the group split up to participate in different activities. Some headed out to a tango class, while others decided to shoot a video of a football tournament of local teams. “We focus on solidarity groups, and working with like-minded people, as a way to support each other and to grow our network,” explains Ghunaim, who joined in the crowd heading to the stadium. "The idea is to spread the call of 'Yalla', or 'Let's go', because the city is for everybody."

Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. She reported this story as part of the India-Germany Media Ambassador fellowship.