During his three-day visit to streetfootballworld, 21 year old Felix Wolf took part in a football training session by RheinFlanke at Tempelhof Refugee Camp. Felix is currently completing an internship at the German Federal Foreign Office, as part of his studies at the German Sport University in Cologne.
With football boots on their feet a group of young men emerge from the broom cupboard-sized rooms, which they have come to call home. Dozens of these makeshift ‘homes are lined up one next to the other in the otherwise empty halls of the old airport building in Berlin Tempelhof.
What was once a refugee shelter for more than 2000 people has now shrunk to a small village about a fourth of its original size. RheinFlanke, a Cologne-based NGO, has been active here since the summer of 2016, providing anyone who is interested with football training sessions twice a week.
As part of my work at streetfootballworld I was able to take part in one of these sessions and talk to the coach as well as some of the refugee players. As I set off, many questions began whirring around in my head: What does it means to be living in Germany, not knowing what lies ahead? Will they be allowed to stay or have to return to the place from where they fled, often out of fear for their lives? How has football helped them to cope with these uncertainties? I arrive at the old airport in the afternoon and my head immediately shoots upwards. The building is enormous. Stretching for what seems like miles into both directions it is difficult to tell how big the halls lying behind these walls really are.
After I pass the security check, which makes you feel like the airport is in fact still active today, I meet Dennis, the football coach from RheinFlanke, and we enter the refugee shelter together.
Just as before, I can’t help but gaze up to the ceiling some 20 metres above our heads. It is an unusual sight and I couldn’t imagine living in one of these halls. From above, the white-walled rooms must seem like little shoe boxes, lost in the vast openness of the old hangars.
Once Dennis and I have changed into our football gear, he goes to collect the guys. Today only six of them show up. Some are injured, some have other courses to attend, so we end up being eight players, including Dennis and me. No matter how small the number, the coach always tries to make the best of the situation, because for most of these guys,the regular training sessions still present one of the best ways to leave their dull lives behind for a short while, which they are forced to spend in the shelter day in and day out.
As we make our way over to another hangar which has been redesigned as a large gym with all kinds of sporting equipment and even includes a football court, I get a chance to talk to Dennis and ask him a couple of questions about the project. He tells me that here football does not simply mean playing the game. “We provide a low threshold opportunity to reach these guys and further encourage them to take part in workshops and language courses beyond the pitch”, Dennis explains to me. Football as an easy way to connect with people. That is what this project is about. Finding a common interest and providing participants with opportunities that are greater than sport.That doesn’t mean, however, that the participants don’t know how to handle a ball, as I soon discover as we start to warm up and get ready for some matches inside a football pitch surrounded by high fences. As everywhere else, the ground consists of concrete slabs, which makes it feel more like playing out on the street. Street football in a hangar in a cage. It seems like an odd combination but no one seems to mind. They have all come here to play football, no matter what the circumstances.
Because the group is quite diverse with refugees from Afghanistan but also Arabic speaking countries the chosen language during the games is the only one they all know how to speak – German.
So here we are in a refugee shelter in Berlin with six guys from all over the world who had to leave everything behind, playing football and speaking German. If the whole set-up of the pitch already felt odd to me, this definitely did.
What followed were two hours of four-a-side matches with a healthy dose of fun and competitiveness. “Pass to me” all of the boys shouted, eager to show everyone that they were the best footballer on the pitch.
Four times Dennis attempted to declare that the session was over until everyone agreed that the last match had now been played. There is not a doubt in my mind that we would have stayed past midnight if it had been up to the guys. We headed back to the shelter, leaving the momentary carelessness behind and returning to the very real and difficult lives that these young men have to lead.
I sit down with Yasin, 24, and Nabi, 20, both from Afghanistan to talk about their experiences inside and outside the project. Joining us is one of their friends who will be doing most of the talking and translating for them. Now that we are sitting at a table facing each other and talking about their normal lives you can see that the sparkle has vanished from their eyes.Yasin, a young man with short, slightly unkempt dark brown hair and empty eyes, who had just been on the pitch with me, celebrating goals, giving his all, and who has been living in Germany for over half a year, will most likely have to leave this country very soon.When I try to find out if he knows the reasons why he shrugs, looking a bit hopeless and lost. The only answer that seems to come to his mind is that “it’s politics”. That’s all he knows. Why he had to come to Germany in the first place provokes even less of an answer. His brother was a politician in Afghanistan, accused of terrorism and imprisoned – falsely, as he says. Yasin had to flee for fear of being persecuted himself. When I try to get more information out of him he stops me. It is not a topic he likes to talk about, especially with the prospect of being deported.
As time goes on, the conversation inevitably moves back to football, our shared passion. I can see the guys opening up, grateful for something they can talk about that will keep their minds off their everyday lives. We talk about the best club is and the best player, if there are any good footballers from Afghanistan. Amiri, a young player of afghan descent who plays for Hoffenheim is a big idol among the men. And we all agree that Barcelona and Messi are the best.
Because in the end, it is football that brings us together.
BY FELIX WOLF