A football team of young refugees and Germans trains together in Bonn every Tuesday. Many young refugees come just to have fun and improve their German, but some also dream of becoming professional football players.
It was snowing and temperatures were below zero when a group of young boys and men from a refugee shelter first took to the field of the nearby football club in Bad Godesberg, a suburb of Bonn, Germany. Some of them were barefoot, chasing the ball across the freezing field.
In November 2015, volunteer football coach Stephan Ebeling had offered to train them and invited them to use his club's grounds to play ball. But what he didn't expect was the situation a lot of them were in.
"Many of the refugees came to the practice without any shoes," Ebeling remembers. He vowed to make sure that all refugees who attend his football training would have access to durable sports shoes and pants. Today, a diverse group of refugees and Germans attends the Tuesday practice - and no one has to go barefoot.
"We raise money for the shoes and other sports equipment for the refugees from voluntary donations and local high schools in the area," Ebeling told InfoMigrants.
Strength in diversity
At first, the majority of the refugees who came to the practice were from Syria and Afghanistan. Now many of them come from African countries such as Cote d'Ivoire and Eritrea, and French has become the most spoken language on the field. What they all have in common, however, is that they are under the age of 18, and came to Germany without their parents. When asked whether the diverse team ever has any problems due to the different nationalities, Ebeling said that "there are no problems between the refugees on the team. Everything works wonderfully."
The refugees come to the practices as they like, and the number of people attending fluctuates - there might be ten people there one week, and then three times as many the next week. Because all players are minors, a supervisor from the shelter accompanies them to the practices.
When Ebeling, in his fifties, realized that the refugees needed someone closer to their age to play with, he teamed up with a local organization called "Youth Connects" (Jugend Verbindet) to try to get some younger Germans to tag along.
"Our goal is to get the German youth to engage with the refugee youth," 22-year old Max Gritz, the vice chair of "Youth Connects" told InfoMigrants. "We promote the team at local events in the area and try to get young Germans to attend the practice and meet the refugees. We also raise money for the team and buy the equipment as well as the team jerseys."
One of the refugees, 16-year old Chinedu, came to Germany four months ago. He escaped death at the hands of the jihadist group Boko Haram in his home country of Nigeria. His journey led him through Niger and Libya before setting off on the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe.
"The journey was so difficult and so many people die in the deserts or on the boats," he told InfoMigrants. He lives with the other unaccompanied minor refugees in the shelter nearby and was granted subsidiary protection - a one-year authorization to reside in Germany due to a threat to life in the country of origin.
Chinedu wants to stay in Germany and become a professional football star. "All my dreams involve football. I want to become a professional football player like Messi and join the Barcelona or Arsenal team," he said.
Long, arduous journeys
Although several of the refugees who attend the practice are quite good, Ebeling said that the chances of them getting to the professional level are low: "Many of them lost one to two years they could've used to practice during their journeys to Germany."
13-year old Alaa came to Germany two years ago from Aleppo, Syria. He likes to come to the practices just for fun and to improve his German. He doesn't have a goal to become a professional football player. "In the future I would like to become a doctor, and if the situation in Syria improves, I would like to return home. Syria is my country," he told InfoMigrants.
Ebeling hopes that the practices will help young refugees like Chinendu and Alaa integrate into German society. "I want the refugees to live here in Germany as Germans, and be able to go to school and find a career," he said.
He also wants the boys to relax: "It's all about fun. Football is an easy game - one ball and two goals is all you need ."
First published on July 5, 2017
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