Gerald Asamoah was a star on Germany's national football team. Now he works with young people at the Rosa Parks School in Germany to promote tolerance and understanding, so that xenophobia and violence don't take root.
He'd been there just a little while ago, that big-name football player, Gerald Asamoah. The students at the Rosa Parks comprehensive school in the western German city of Herten had been waiting, expectantly, for him. He doesn't often have time to visit, but when he does, he spends his time with the kids.
"He's really approachable for the students and sets a great tone with them," said Stephanie Brzoza, a teacher at the school who serves as the contact for the school project. "When he comes here and speaks to the students, they love him."
This time, he even sang with them - a birthday medley for Rosa Parks, the US civil rights activist whose name the school bears. The visits with young people are something Gerald Asamoah enjoys. "It's really nice. You see how engaged the young people are with you. They're ready to learn from you to accept where you're coming from," said Asamoah in an interview with DW about the project.
What connects Asamoah to the Rosa Parks School
From the outside, the Rosa Parks School doesn't look all that inviting: a large building from the 1970s made of gray cement has been done up with a few wall murals and yellow window frames.
Yet before you even cross the threshold at the school's entrance, you know what they stand for. On one side of the entry foyer is an emblem stating that this is a school "without racism," and which stands "for courage." Above the entrance is the maxim: "Without courage and inspiration, dreams will die - the dream of freedom and peace."
Gerald Asamoah is one of three supporters of the program fighting against discrimination of every kind at the Rosa Parks School. He is regularly engaged in the project.
Murat Turcan, a student in the 11th grade can remember how the students had gotten prepared for the football star's first visit to the school four years ago. "We were fascinated by his visit, when he described how he was cursed and insulted. He showed us that you can accomplish anything, no matter your skin color if you push through. He didn't allow them get him down."
At the time, the class had bet against their teacher, Stephanie Brzoza, saying that a star like Asamoah would never come to a school like theirs to speak about his experiences with racism. But the children lost the bet.
"We were so nervous on the day that Asamoah came," said Murat. "I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think about it."
Courage against xenophobia
Sarah Ates, Johannes Cronauer and Florian Thielemann are active in the school without racism project
The former student who served as a class liaison, Florian Thielemann, worked hard to have the Rosa Parks School officially named a "school without racism." That's the motor that drove the movement to get Gerald Asamoah engaged in the project. "Asamoah stands for tolerance and is against racism. That's in our best interests." With letters and good reasons, the students won Asamoah over. "We have a school with a large percentage of immigrant students. It's imperative to act courageously."
The city of Herten, with its 62,000 inhabitants, lies in the middle of Germany's western Ruhr region. Around 14 percent of the population has a history of migration. The unemployment rate lies around 12 percent. That's reflected in the school, where around 50 to 60 percent of the students are from a cultural background that is not immediately German.
'School without racism - school with courage'
"School without racism - school with courage" is a Europe-wide project for tolerance and education that is supported by the European Union. Schools which would like to hold the title have to fulfill specific requirements.
"The students are required to not tolerate racist acts and instead lead the way against such actions," said the school's principal, Thomas Aehlig.
At least 70 percent of all students and those who are employed at the school have to sign a statement saying that they want to actively work against racism and discrimination. Beyond that, they need to have individuals who act as a sort-of mentor, adopting the school and creating a project on the topic of "school without racism," each year.
"That's not just a title or a label that's been attached to our school. It's important to me that we also display that during our lessons," said Aehlig.
Gerald Asamoah was quickly won over. "I liked the idea a lot and really stand behind it," said the footballer, who in the meantime has gone on to support five schools across Germany in the project. "Adults can't change much, their mind is already made up, even if I try to speak to that person. But with young people, you can really talk to them and make it clear: We are all the same. The children are our future."
Every year, there are different projects on the subject of racism and courage at the Rosa Parks School. In one of them, the students created an "anti-racism bus" in Herten. This year, a class of students comprised of recently arrived refugees will be brought into the project.
"We're going to create a large poster with the class of refugees," said student head Sarah Ates. "We want to create a sign that we stand for tolerance and with it, show that refugees are welcome here."
Rosa Parks as a role model
For his educational work on the subject of racism, former student Florian Thielmann has received the school's Rosa Parks Prize, awarded annually on February 4, the birthday of the civil rights activist.
Parks is best known for being arrested after refusing to move to the back of a city bus in 1955, when the segregation of black and white people still took place in the US.
"The prize serves not only as a symbol against racism, it also shows civic courage and engagement through projects that nurture cooperation," said religion teacher Renate Tellgmann. In 2005, Tellgmann worked with her students to have the name of the school changed to the Rosa Parks School. "As a result of the name, students are made aware of the connections across time, such as the discriminatory laws from the Nazi era or the apartheid in South Africa."
At the moment, Trump has been a big topic of discussion. "And of course, the refugees who are here. One of our higher-level students uses the free lessons she has to teach German to the refugee students."
Racism still prevalent in many heads
Of course, racism and discrimination still exists at the Rosa Parks School, said Tellgmann. But there are always students who are willing to step in. Outside of school, it's something else. Jessica Nsanda, for example, recently had her hair touched while riding in the tram. And when a woman saw her mobile telephone, the woman said to the person next to her. "They come to Germany and give their money away for mobiles," Jessica told a small group of students who'd gathered. She shrugged. "What am I supposed to do? That's the image people have of us."
"People are always touching my hair. I hate it. That's why I always kept my hair short," said Johannes Cronauer, a former student who was active in the "anti-racism bus" project.
Social worker Martin Schwirske reinforces the students in their activism, coordinating the school's working group, "school without racism." He's proud of the students' projects. Of course, one cannot just rest on his laurels and decide that the "school without racism" seal is enough. The subject is one that must be confronted repeatedly in various projects and that message needs to be promoted to the outside, he said. For him, it's clear, "A school without racism is not a condition, it's an objective."