The first time Majed Al Wawi drove past Hamburg’s container terminal, he was intrigued by the big ships and towering cranes.
So when a teacher suggested he apply for an internship at the port, the Syrian refugee jumped at the chance.
“That first day was astonishing,” said the 21-year-old. “I was really motivated… It was always my dream to work with big machines… The bigger the machine, the more fun it is to operate.”
Majed fled the war in Aleppo, Syria, in 2015 when he was just 17, leaving his parents and five younger siblings behind. After a 28-day journey, he arrived at the German border.
Now, as a trainee with logistics firm Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA), Majed is learning to repair the 2,000-tonne cranes at Burchardkai, the largest and oldest of the port city's container terminals.
“I was really motivated… It was always my dream to work with big machines."
Finding work is often a vital step for refugees like Majed as they embrace new lives in host countries. Many sectors in Germany have found opportunities for new arrivals while filling gaps in the country’s labour market.
On arrival in Hamburg, Majed moved into a shelter for unaccompanied minors. Within months, he returned to school and began studying German.
“Learning the language is the key to a society,” said Majed, in fluent German. “If you can master the language, you can get on in life.”
Majed did internships with HHLA and last summer was offered a place on the port’s prestigious vocational training program for engineers.
The traineeship was a good fit for Majed. He had worked at his family’s construction firm in Aleppo from the age of 13 when war forced his school to close. But the work was also new. In Syria, he had never even seen the sea, much less a port.
Hamburg is Europe’s third largest port, and HHLA runs three of its four container terminals. Majed is now six months into his traineeship with the terminal operator as a mechatronics engineer, a field that combines electrical, computer and mechanical engineering.
He is learning to repair the cranes that unload containers from gigantic freight ships docked in the Elbe river. He also maintains the automated rail-mounted cranes that lift containers out of temporary storage for transfer to trains and trucks.
“It doesn’t make any difference to us what our trainees’ background is."
HHLA is training a handful of others who have fled their home countries, though there is no specific programme for refugees.
“It doesn’t make any difference to us what our trainees’ background is,” said Jan Wehlen, HHLA’s head of training and development.
Majed says he feels at home in the port and gets on well with his colleagues.
“All the staff are so nice to me and friendly,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.” Colleagues too praised Majed’s work.
Over the next three years, the trainees must also learn to program the computer systems that oversee the highly automated terminal. Eventually, some candidates will be taken on as permanent employees.
It would be a dream come true for Majed. And yet when he thinks about the future, with his family still in Syria, he says it’s difficult not to feel torn.
“If I have a good life here, I will stay,” said Majed. “And Hamburg is a really cool city. But I think everyone yearns for the place they grew up in.”