First a refugee from Nigeria, now he's a celebrated boxer. Jerry Elliott runs two boxing studios in Cologne, aiming to get kids off the street.
A large iron gate leads to a small courtyard at Barbarossaplatz in Cologne's city center. Donning a baseball cap and sunglasses, Jerry Elliott goes down the small set of stairs to the first boxing studio he opened eight years ago. "It's home to me," he says proudly. It started a whole new chapter to the 35-year-old, professional boxer's life.
But there were many hurdles he had to overcome before he got there. Elliott grew up as the youngest of 12 children in Oke Ora, in western Nigeria. His father was very aggressive, he says, and frequently beat him. "It went beyond normal," he recalls. "At some point, I just got fed up and left for Lagos, from where I wanted to flee to Europe."
With neither a passport, nor money in his pocket, Elliott was just 16 years old when he decided to leave the country. He did not really know where he'd end up, but he said he didn't have any other options than to escape. "I think I would have died had I stayed there," he said.
Aiming to start a new life, he first went to Lagos, then on to Cairo and Istanbul - where he worked in a factory for a pittance. He moved on to Greece, where he was imprisoned with other refugees. A prison guard ultimately helped him escape. He ended up in Amsterdam, from where he entered Germany illegally, but was granted asylum in Frankfurt.
The secret is in the punching bag
"I was a plucky kid. I experienced everything. Everything," he says emphatically. He gets his energy from the punching bag, he admits. "I started boxing when I was seven years old, and we would hang up bags of sand in a backyard," he recalls. "I started boxing properly when I went to Lagos."
After arriving in Cologne in 1996, he was discovered by coach Uli Wegner, who was desperately searching for a boxer for an upcoming match. "I realized in a split-second that that was my only chance of entering the boxing ring professionally."
He won the match - launching his professional, storybook career.
Passing on experience
In 2004, Elliott initiated the Multicultural Project Cologne, or the MCP Association. "The idea is to motivate kids to get more exercise, to help them get off the street, and to give them the chance to train, regardless of whether they have any money," he explained.
The free boxing classes are geared toward kids from families with socio-economic difficulties, and often with immigrant backgrounds. Donations and fees from other association members who pay for their own training help to finance the program.
Elliott stresses not only the program's benefits for physical fitness, but also in helping the kids funnel and regulate their aggression. They also learn how to deal with other people, discipline themselves and work on acceptance and tolerance of others. "We have a lot of different types of people who train here: foreigners, Germans, black people, white people - all different kids," Elliott said.
The MCP Association ended up becoming so successful, that Elliott decided to start another project in schools: "Make a Change, Try Something New." Since some kids who train with Jerry sometimes don't come back, he takes the training into schools. The projects sees kids employ poetry, music, dance, videos and photographs to tackle the topic of fitness boxing.
Helping others helps oneself
The many kids who cavort in Jerry's courtyard studio just to benefit from the training sessions show just how popular such projects are. "The mood is great here," said Linda, one of the few girls among the kids.
Elliott is proud of his projects and the long way he's come. He sees different reasons for his commitment to his work: "I didn't have the chance to do any of this kind of stuff when I was little," he said. "Now, I can show kids how to box. I 'come home' in that sense. It's like waking up with a new life every day and I enjoy that."
Elliott aims to release an autobiography by the end of this year entitled "I'm from Oke Ora." And the boxer also knows exactly where the rest of his projects are headed. "Our aspiration is to have studios all over Germany where kids can train free of charge." And his own personal ambition? To become German boxing champion.
Elliott has settled in Cologne. Every time he sees "his" kids, he thinks back to himself when he was little. He wants to help them find their place in life. Taking off his sunglasses as he leans back in his chair, he says he loves his native country and is still Nigerian, but now has a German passport - pointing out just how special that is. "When I go out now and someone asks to see my ID, I pull out my passport with pride and say 'I'm German,'" he says, laughing.
Author: Johanna Siegel / als
Editor: Spencer Kimball