In The World: building a future for young refugees in Hamburg

31 January 2019

Steffen Schlabe works as a Change Manager with Barclaycard in Hamburg, Germany, where he also volunteers with JOBLINGE, a charity dedicated to helping young refugees find work. Steffen discusses the obstacles facing his mentee, dealing with cultural differences – and how his own childhood experiences inspired him to reach out to others.

It all started on my first day at Barclaycard. I was invited to an event welcoming new recruits, and we discussed the wide range of social programmes that the bank partnered with. I told my manager that I was interested in mentoring young people, and after a few weeks looking into different projects, I decided to work with JOBLINGE.

JOBLINGE is a national charity dedicated to helping young, disadvantaged people find long-term employment or apprenticeship opportunities. Here in Hamburg, we are particularly focused on helping refugees – and finding work is very difficult for them. There are so many barriers standing in the way, from language to education, and it’s our job to guide them through the process.

Before we discussed the job market, we decided to address the basics – like what it meant to be German

My mentee, and friend, is Ali – a 23-year-old refugee from Iraq, who fled to Germany after a difficult time in Turkey. When we first met, Ali had so much to learn, so we started hanging out regularly. I wanted him to see parts of the city he wasn’t so familiar with, so we’d travel all over Hamburg, meeting up in lots of different parks and restaurants.

Before we discussed the job market, we decided to address the basics – like what it meant to be German. Ali has grown up in a very different environment, with different customs and traditions, and we thought it was important to identify the key differences – so he would feel more prepared for the workplace. 


We’ve been working together for five months now, and I’ve noticed a huge transformation. Ali has always been super friendly, but, when we first met, he didn’t take things very seriously – he was always making jokes! In the last few months, however, Ali has really matured. He knows what he wants from life – like a Mercedes, for example – and he’s started to make plans for his future.

Ali has now secured his first job, working as a salesman for a big electric company here in Germany. He’s come so far in such a short space of time. It’s an amazing achievement, and we’re all delighted for him.

“When a large number of refugees came to Germany, I wanted to help”

I’ve always been passionate about helping refugees, and I think that goes back to my own experiences growing up in Germany. I was born in East Germany, and didn’t move to the west of the country until 1992 – which was after the Berlin wall came down. As you can imagine, it was a difficult time. The country of my birth had ceased to exist, and with it I felt my culture had disappeared as well. I had grown up in a communist society. We didn’t have luxuries – whether that meant nice cars or Coca-Cola – so experiencing west German capitalism was a real culture shock.

I think that’s why, when a large number of refugees came to Germany, I wanted to help. I asked myself how these people were feeling, having to leave their homes and learn how to live in a new culture, not knowing what the next day would bring. There were similarities to my own experience.

It’s great to work for a company that are serious about making a difference. My managers are really supportive, they allow me to spend two working days a month on mentoring. There are about 20 of us in my building who work with JOBLINGE, and that kind of support from the top helps us attract other volunteers.

Mentoring Ali has definitely affected the way I work in my day-to-day role, as a Change Manager at Barclaycard. I think it’s led me to consider the thoughts and experiences of others more, and think about how I can connect with other members of the team.

Ali is coming to the end of his mentorship now. He’s got a good job, he’s confident and he’s enjoying his new challenges and surroundings. Naturally, people might think that this means our relationship will draw to a close but, actually, the opposite is true. We’re good friends, and we still meet up regularly. He is approaching a really exciting point in his life, and I can’t wait to see what more is to come from him.