Cologne – Following co-operation between 1. FSV Mainz 05, amateur club FC Ente Bagdad and the Juvente Mainz Foundation, the first alliance of the integration initiative “Welcome to football” - which is supported by the Bundesliga Foundation – has been launched.

Kharrat Loujain, who everyone simple calls ‘Lou’, sits on the side of the pitch and rubs his right shin. He came off worse in a tackle and despite the pain the slender youngster with long black hair is eager to rejoin the action straight away. “It’s so much fun playing football here I’d like to come every day,” he says.

Widespread support

Lou (pictured, r.) is one of 12 young refugees between the ages of 12 and 15 to take part in this training session on a hot Wednesday afternoon on the pitches of FC Ente Bagdad, in the Mainz suburb of Bretzenheim. The 15-year-old, like many of his team-mates, comes from Syria, but there are also youngsters from Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Macedonia and Albania.

In mid-August the pilot project “Welcome to Football”, a nationwide integration programme run by the Foundation for German Children and Adolescents, was launched in Mainz. It is supported by the Bundesliga Foundation and Aydan Özoguz, the Federal Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, who have made 1.05 million Euro available, while a further 750,000 Euro has been set aside in development funds.

'Our duty as humans'

While Bundesliga side Mainz 05, Ente Bagdad and the Juvente Mainz Foundation are working in conjunction, other partnerships between Bundesliga clubs, amateur sides and social organisations are planned in Berlin, Braunschweig, Leipzig and Stuttgart, all under the “Welcome to Football”  umbrella. 

“The objective is to form strong alliances with the professional clubs in order to help young refugees create real opportunities for themselves,” said Stefan Kiefer, chairman of the Bundesliga Foundation. As many as 20 projects are to be set up across Germany by the end of the year.

Speaking to Lou it becomes clear just how important projects like “Welcome to Football” are. He speaks fluent English, having gone to an American school in Aleppo, but after his family’s house was destroyed he fled to western Europe with his mother, younger sister and older brother. He no longer has any contact with his father, who stayed behind in Syria.

However, Lou is happy to be in Mainz and, once the pain in his shin subsides, he gleefully returns to the match he was playing, in which German youngsters also participated as part of a deliberate integration strategy. As Ente Bagdad coach Mustapha Smail, puts it: “We view welcoming refugees as our duty as humans. We have to show them that we are there and we want to help. That’s all you need to do to start with.”

Tobias Schächter