More than just sports

Whether asylum seekers, Russian kids from Hartz-IV families or Turkish girls looking to break patriarchal tradition, these lucky athletes found dedicated coaches ready lend a helping hand. We visited three sport associations that make a difference.

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Champions ohne Grenzen practice in Kreuzberg. Photo by Jason Harrell

Collective physical exercise is not always just about fun and fitness – it can also be a great way to tackle issues that matter. Whether asylum seekers, Russian kids from Hartz-IV families or Turkish girls looking to break patriarchal tradition, these lucky ones found dedicated coaches ready to train and lend a helping hand. We visited three sport associations that make a difference.

Football without borders

At first glance, the young men playing football every Wednesday afternoon on the local FC Hansa 07 pitch on Wrangelstraße look like your average multikulti Kreuzberg team. But instead of German or Turkish on the pitch, the players jest and curse in Arabic, Bambara and Persian. Most of them are refugees in Berlin, from Africa and the Middle East. On their black and yellow goalie jerseys, a figure in shorts kicks a ball across a map of Eurasia and over the team’s name: Champions ohne Grenzen, or “Champions without borders”. “Yalla! Yalla!”, someone shouts.

Players jest and curse in Arabic, Bambara and Persian.

Goalkeeper Iman Kasan is one of the first members of the refugee team, founded in April 2012. The 29-year-old Iranian left Tehran almost four years ago, fleeing religious persecution at home. “I converted from Shia Islam to Zoroastrianism, which of course was problematic,” he recounts matter-of-factly. The psychology student’s asylum application has been denied and for now he must live under the precarious Duldung status, meaning that he can be deported on short notice at any time. When he’s on the pitch, though, he stops worrying. Football has always been Kasan’s favourite sport – actually, he used to play in Iran’s pro league. But at Champions ohne Grenzen, he got much more than just a game: he made friends and contacts, and he started learning German.

“That’s exactly the point,” beams co-founder Carolin Gaffron. “Life at the refugee home is incredibly boring. You can’t work, you know no one, you’ve got nothing to do at all. And it can feel quite lonely,” the 33-year old Berliner explains. Herself a passionate football player since childhood, she became a coach in 2010 and created a street football tournament for girls in Neukölln while still pursuing a master’s in intercultural studies. In January 2012, she and some teammates founded “…weil Fußball verbindet!” (“…because football brings us together”), aimed at unifying various social groups through sports; Champions ohne Grenzen emerged out of that organisation in April of the same year.

Only one refugee attended the first session, but the numbers grew quickly. As of now, around 30 men train every Wednesday in Kreuzberg. Not all of them are refugees: a few German friends regularly attend training, as well as a couple of North African students with a regular residency permit. Two German coaches, Arne and Sofie, are in charge. Since spring 2014, a female ohne Grenzen team has been practising on Fridays in Mitte.

“The demand is huge in Berlin asylum seekers’ homes, but there are many hurdles preventing refugees from joining a normal Sportverein,” says Gaffron. “There’s the language barrier, of course, and the lack of knowledge of sports structures here. And in most cases, you need some paperwork sorted out, a bank account, or at least enough money to pay membership fees… For your average Asylant, this is way too much hassle.” With the current rate of refugee arrivals in Berlin at over 1000 a month, Champions ohne Grenzen is expecting more and more players. From this spring on, there will be a second weekly training session in Wedding. However, because of technical and bureaucratic issues, joining a local competition is still out of the question.

Even with such a diverse crowd of uprooted young men playing football, Gaffron says, “It goes pretty smoothly, really. Most members attend practice very regularly, and we’re coping just fine with the languages. Of course, many guys have horrible personal stories and it can wear me down at times. And most of them played football on the streets rather than in a club before, so team discipline is not a given for them,” she admits. On a practical note, she points out that because of refugees’ limited access to medical care, an injury at the pitch is quite a big deal, even though she provides as much support as possible. At the beginning of the project, Gaffron was dedicating a lot of her time helping her protégés in their daily struggles – looking for lawyers, attending hearings at court, counselling them with paperwork, connecting them. But the ever-increasing number of players has forced her to concentrate more on football. “Right now, Champions ohne Grenzen is really as it was intended – we play football and have fun together every week.”

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Judo in Marzahn. Photo by Jason Harrell

Judo kids from the block

Hajime!” the instructor shouts, and the 12 six-to-ten-year-old kids on the tatami (11 boys, one girl) start fighting in pairs while their parents watch fondly, exchanging comments in a lively mix of German and Russian. With heavily graffitied walls and rows upon rows of Plattenbau estates towering over it, the small gymnasium of the Ebereschen primary school could use a makeover. But during their judo course, the kids couldn’t care less. They concentrate on the moves, giving their best. “It doesn’t take long before you notice the improvements – and not just at judo,” says instructor Pierre Eisfeld of the club SV Berlin 2000. “They get better grades, they become less aggressive. Look, eight-year-old Eugene* from Russia here could barely speak any German when he started with me at age five. Now he can.” The 24-year-old philosophy student says that judo saved him from a bleak future in an impoverished part of Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia. Scouted by Bundesliga judo coaches at age 16, he was sent to Berlin for intensive training. “As I got used to the effort, I also became more committed at school. I got my Abitur and now I’m studying at Humboldt University – all of this happened thanks to judo,” says Eisfeld.

In Ahrensfelde, the sprawling concrete jungle of northernmost Marzahn, he instructs 35 kids three times a week in three age groups. That’s three times as many as when he started teaching in 2012. He says that 80 percent of his pupils come from former Soviet states and half of them from “socially disadvantaged families” with at least one unemployed parent. “Many are struggling to afford the monthly €15 for the membership. Up to €10 is paid for by the Jobcenter, otherwise some of these kids just wouldn’t be here.” When discipline seems to go amiss on the tatami, Eisfeld is quick to restore order. “Dreimal Spagat!” he instructs in a shout. The children oblige, wincing as they perform their best attempts at a full split, three times in a row. He then walks among them, helping and encouraging.

Training boys and girls from Marzahn’s deprived families can be trying. “You see heartbreaking situations. The other day, little Sasha’s* parents simply forgot to pick him up after practice. He was waiting for almost an hour in the dark. I had to give him a lift home,” There’s also the language barrier. “It would make things smoother, sometimes, if I could speak Russian. But in the long run it wouldn’t help the kids. They need to learn good German, after all.”

Despite the heavy weekly workload and the long commute from Wedding to Ahrensfelde, Eisfeld plans to continue training his Marzahn pupils for at least another few years. “It’s important for them to have one place where things are sort of regular and stable. It helps them stay committed. Anyway, I need them too. I’ve grown pretty fond of those kids.” And judging by the mountain of Russian sweets he receives from parents every Christmas, the fondness is mutual.

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Players on the Türkiyemspor girls’ team. Photo by Jason Harrell

Bend it like Özil

Sipping strong espresso at Südblock, coach Murat Doğan recalls the uphill battle he had to fight, back in the mid- 2000s, as he tried to establish the first female football team within Türkiyemspor Berlin. The Kreuzberg-based immigrant club had been around, under various names, for over 35 years, and had become something of a local legend – it had reached the final of the Berlin state cup a few times in the early 1990s and qualified four times for the DFB cup, narrowly missing promotion to the Second Bundesliga. But a small core of Kreuzberg girls from Turkish families had grown tired of sitting on the sidelines. Doğan, himself a former Türkiyemspor player who then coached one of the young boys’ teams, set out to remedy that.

My dad didn’t want his daughter to play football… now he is my biggest fan!

“Even though the guys at the club knew me and respected me, they would come to me and say, ‘Murat, what have you got yourself into? Have you lost your mind or something?’ The scepticism and sheer hostility were staggering,” the 38-yearold Berliner remembers. But he was determined to shake things up in a club that had been run by the same people – all men – for two decades.

When Doğan finally started training just five girls aged 6-14, in 2004, matters were far from settled. “We had to physically protect them from the local youths – some would assault the girls for having the nerve to play football,” he recounts. However, acceptance of the female players grew slowly over time, within the club and Berlin’s Turkish community.

After 11 years, there are now some 170 girls and women playing in eight teams of various age groups, including two women’s teams. No fewer than 16 coaches train them, half of them women who learnt to play football at the club. Few question the existence of a female section any longer. “We see those conservative Turkish or Arab dads positively beaming with joy and pride at their hijab-wearing, football-playing daughters,” enthuses Doğan’s partner, Giovanna Krüger. The pair met at “Türkiyem” through Krüger’s daughter; Krüger has been dedicating most of her spare time to volunteering for the club’s female section ever since. It’s a lot of additional work for the Berlin mother, but worth the effort, she says. “There’s only so much you can change in the older generations’ conservative views. But look: now we have this generation of boys growing up around girls who play football, and they find it absolutely normal. Now that’s radical change.”

Aylin*, a 14-year-old of Turkish descent, is one of those girls. She started playing as a child, but after a few years, her parents forced her to stop. “My dad didn’t want his daughter to play football,” she says. “My sports teacher pleaded with him for years. Once he said yes, but then he just went into a rage and tore up my membership paperwork,” Aylin recalls. But last year, her father allowed her to join Türkiyem’s under-15 female team. “It’s great to play football again. And you know what? My dad is already my biggest fan!”

Türkiyemspor’s Mädchen- und Frauenabteilung isn’t just a female version of the men’s section. “The Türkiyem men are very competitive; we’re not quite like that. Sure, we do sports, but we put a lot of emphasis on issues – those that the men neglect,” Krüger explains with a conspiratorial smile. “I still get lots of criticism for openly addressing homophobia in sports, for instance. Those influential Turkish businessmen quite probably agree with me, but they will make a point of distancing themselves in public. It’s a tightly knit community and people don’t want to damage their reputation,” explains Doğan. And they’re not coy about breaking another taboo in the community: so-called honour killings. In February, to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the death of Hatun Sürücü, a 23-year-old Kurdish single mother murdered by her brothers for escaping a forced marriage, they invited eight female teams from as many “socially aware” clubs from Kreuzberg and Neukölln to compete for the “Hatun Sürücü Cup”. After 26 games, the cup went to Trabzonspor, the only other Turkish team in the competition; Türkiyem was a close second and the lesbian club Seitenwechsel came in third. Many of the host team’s players and supporters were wearing white t-shirts with black letters reading “Ich darf nicht” (“I’m not allowed”), the motto of the tournament. The question “Warum?” (“Why?”), was splashed in large red letters across their backs. “Our girls shouldn’t take for granted that only their brothers or male acquaintances should be allowed to go out and have fun,” explains Krüger. After the cup is awarded, stand-up comedian Idil Baydar (known for her Youtube persona Jilet Ayşe) slams one of her famous texts. “What’s wrong with you, sis? You’re not to be cowed into submission. What’s wrong with you, bro? No, we won’t ask for your permission,” she raps at the crowd with a stern glare.

The girls clap and cheer wildly and eagerly snap selfies with Baydar. Among them are Luzie and Fay, two Kreuzberg teenagers without a notable “immigration background” – except for Fay’s white English father. “Sure, every girl in Kotti has some friend who isn’t allowed to do anything, and that’s sad. But we’re here because it’s fun. We have a great time together, like a second family.” For the two friends, combining their passion for football with social activism also makes sense for a much more down-to-earth reason. “Unlike the boys, we won’t have any footballing career whatsoever. So we might as well try our best to make a difference in our Kiez,” says Fay with a resigned shrug.

Originally published in issue #136, March 2015.