Berlin - On a small football pitch in the north-western suburbs of Berlin, a motley crew has assembled. There is Daniela Schadt, the life partner of Germany's president Joachim Gauck. There is Werner Gegenbauer, president of Hertha BSC. There is Hertha's mascot Herthinho. At the centre of it all, though, are fifty young refugees playing football.
Schadt is visiting in her role as patron of the German Children and Youth Foundation (DKJS). Alongside the German government and the Bundesliga foundation, the DKJS sponsors the Berlin branch of "Willkommen im Fußball", a nationwide project to help refugees integrate into German society through football.
In Berlin, it is run as a co-operation between local club SC Siemensstadt, the sport and integration organisation Champions ohne Grenzen e.V, and Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin. The idea is simple. Every week, young refugees are able to come and play football. SC Siemensstadt provides the pitch and facilities, while coaches are organized with help from Hertha and the Champions ohne Grenzen organization, who also bring together the refugees.
Enjoyment all round
In Schadt's words, it is a "very special co-operation. The weekly training gives young refugees something to look forward to in their daily life. They are part of a team, and get a feeling of belonging".
Their delight is there for all to see. Of the 50 or so young men on the pitch today, most are proudly sporting Hertha t-shirts provided by the club, most of them are grinning from ear to ear, and all of them are training enthusiastically.
"They're always so excited to come and play football," says Muriel Zenk, a social worker at a refugee camp in Spandau. Zenk has brought ten teenagers along to training; almost all of them arrived in Germany recently from Afghanistan. At the camp in Spandau, she says, there are about 60 young refugees at the moment.
'A long-term project'
Berlin is one of 20 places around Germany where the Willkommen im Fußball project is up and running. In all of them, it is run collectively by local initiatives, local amateur clubs, and one Bundesliga or Bundesliga 2 club.
“"The fact that it's happening in 20 places shows that the Bundesliga clubs are really working well together," says Hertha president Werner Gegenbauer. Hertha are one of many Bundesliga clubs which have given matchday tickets to groups of refugees this season. That, says Gegenbauer, is a good thing to do, but the Willkommen im Fußball project attends to different needs.
"Inviting refugees to games is a welcoming gesture. What we're doing here, on the other hand, is helping to make sure that integration really works. This is a long-term project. We don't have to do this. We just do it".
Weekly training sessions are not all they do, however. As Gegenbauer says, this is a bigger project. After training, there are sessions organised by the Champions ohne Grenzen organisation to allow refugees to seek advice and help with finding jobs. Hertha are also involved in this process, taking youngsters on stadium tours to show them the range of employment opportunities within the Olympic Stadium. And all three partners are expected to help find internships and educational opportunities for refugees.
At the heart of all of it, though, is the game of football. Mohammed Ahmadi, who arrived in Germany as a refugee himself and has since become a coach at Champions ohne Grenzen, sums it up perfectly.
"By playing football, you're able to clear your head. It gives you the space to think about how you're going to go about your situation," he says. On the pitch at SC Siemensstadt, it seems Mohammed is right: football is a good way of going about it. That much is clear to see.