The power of football to bridge social gaps isn’t a new idea, but when the players involved are newly arrived refugees, it can be the gateway to a whole new life. CHAMPIONS ohne GRENZEN began in 2012 as an exercise in Willkommenskultur by mixing refugees and non-refugees together to play football. The next year, trainer and Kreuzberger Carmen Grimm decided women deserved to be involved and the ladies team was born, bringing together players from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Albania and helping them better integrate into Germany through football.
But the team was missing something. It wasn’t until 2018 that Lebanese-born trainer Nada Arbaji came on board that the women had a coach who can better relate to their experiences. Arbaji, who came to Germany in 2014, doesn’t just bring cultural similarity to the table, but some mean football skills too.
The team, who were beautifully documented in photographer Alexa Vachon’s 2018 book Rise, may not have won titles yet… but they’re scoring big with their real goals of instilling self-confidence and a sense of community in their players, fostering participation and reducing inequalities.
Fresh off the pitch from the KickOutRacism Cup, we caught up with Arbaji to hear more about the project.
Does it really make a difference having a coach from the Middle East?
I understand their mentalities and how they think. I understand when a girl is embarrassed by doing certain things. Even though I live in Europe, I still come from a Middle Eastern background. It’s important for them to have a coach who’s not German because they need someone to talk to, someone more neutral like me. I’m between East and West. But also importantly, it made a big difference to the families of the players. They feel more comfortable with me.
Is this your first experience training a team like this?
Yeah, it is my first experience training refugees. You need to be more than just a coach with them and you need to understand everyone’s circumstances. For example, one of the girls that we have on the team is here without her family. She tried her best: crossed the sea on a boat, been living alone for three years and she did it all by herself. Now she speaks German and she plays football. But you need to know how to deal with all those special circumstances, because they are all starting from scratch and they’re very sensitive. You have to be more like a sister than a coach.
Why are the women getting involved in football at such a sensitive point in time?
For one, the girls get to make new friends from different places. You have to remember that these girls have very little resources. They cannot just go out to a restaurant. Some of them cannot even talk to their own families. Look at me for example, even though my living conditions are better I miss my family back home terribly. Imagine how they feel given the circumstances that they live in. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It could be that all refugees are simply asked to go back to their countries.
The kind of support that these girls need is very specific. They need an experience that enables them to take a break from it all and not think about it… to de-stress and just have a good time.
What about girls from more conservative backgrounds – are they hesitant to play?
Not at all. Every Tuesday, the players’ families come to watch our practice. They are mainly older women in their fifties and each one of them might have up to six adult sons. You have to see how excited and happy they get. They have a really good time and they laugh a lot. You start to realise with time that they are not used to laughing that much. It’s very inspiring. And the mothers wish they had this opportunity as well when they were younger. But now they are happy that their daughters get this chance.
This sounds like a really great experience for them. But have they had to deal with any racism?
One major incident happened last year. I was on my way to meet the team in Marzahn and hadn’t yet arrived. Before I got there, someone attacked two of our players by spitting in their faces. It was remarkable because one of the two is German, with an African background, so not a refugee. She got really angry and wanted to go after the guy but he just left. I’ve heard of other such situations but to be honest I try not to think about them. Otherwise, there’s no end to it.
What do you want to impart to these girls as a trainer?
We were concerned because we want our players to have a good time, not feel defeated. We tell them that the score is not important. It’s the experience that counts.