German amateur coach fights racism in Dom Rep | How sports can bring people together around the world | DW | 21.05.2015
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Sports: the global language

German amateur coach fights racism in Dom Rep

After completing high school in Germany, Miriam Schöps went for a Gap year to the Dominican Republic. Working as a football coach, she was able to bring two groups of people together and fight discrimination.

As she was packing to leave for the Dominican Republic, Miriam Schöps (pictured above in purple) thought that she was heading overseas to volunteer in eco-tourism. But, when she finally got to her job, the project was barely happening. Searching desperately for something to do, she went to a nearby school in the coastal city of Barahona and offered to start a girls' soccer team. The school thought it was a great idea.

"I wanted to fight against the typical gender roles and I wanted to give the girls more self confidence," Schöps explains, adding that women in the Caribbean country are often charged with looking after the kids and the household. "I wanted to show the girls that things could be different."

But, once the first sessions began, Schöps - who has worked for years as a football coach for girls in Germany - soon realized that the female students weren't interested. "There were 20 boys there instead," she told DW. "I was concerned that they wouldn't take me seriously, and that they would misbehave."

But her worries were unfounded: the youngsters were excited to take part in the course, even though they had only one ball between them and very little other equipment on hand for the training sessions. Schöps says that the students had to gather stones to mark the goal posts.

Before long, Schöps was running training sessions four times a week. Unfortunately, she said, her attempts to get the girls involved didn't work out though.

Kids play on a hard court in the Dominican Republic

Kick off: one of Miriam Schöps' training sessions after school

Building bridges between nations

Once she was given permission to train on a local pitch, the sessions started to become pretty well-known. Before long, they even had spectators.

"During training at the local stadium there would often be boys from Haiti leaning against the fence, watching our sessions," she recalls. "Eventually I went over to them and asked them if they wanted to play." Schöps knew about the animosity between the two bordering nations and thought she might be able to help on a local level.

"It was a shock for me to see how Haitian immigrants were discriminated against and insulted in the Dominican Republic," she says.

But the new, combined training sessions worked well. "At the start the Dominicans were a bit annoyed, because the Haitian players were much better on the ball," she says. It's hardly surprising: while the Dominican Republic focuses a lot of its sporting energy on baseball, Haiti lives and breathes football.

A map of Haiti and Dominican Republic

Divided in two: in the west is Haiti and in the east is the comparitively affluent Dominican Republic

Breaking down prejudice with football

But within a few weeks of training together, friendships were starting to develop between the two groups. There were only very few arguments, Schöps said.

"If it did happen, I grabbed the players involved and said 'I won't put up with racism. You should apologize and then go home. If you want to come back, then I don't want to hear that sort of thing again'."

As she recounts the story, sitting in her shared house in Bonn months later, there's no doubting how seriously she meant it.

At some point during one of Schöps' coaching sessions, a man came up to her, saying that he worked as a coach and that he was willing to help: "That really made me happy, especially for our kids." Over time, some players were even invited to special events, for talented footballers.

Schöps is convinced that sport is great at helping different groups come together and break down deeply-held prejudices. Even though she wasn't able to motivate girls to get involved, she hopes that by working as a female coach in the Dominican Republic, she was able to give the students a different view of what women are capable of.

"It's difficult inside of a year to change the way that people think," Schöps concludes. "But at least these groups of boys were able to play football together, without going at each other's throats."