Hamburg boxing club invites refugees into the ring

"I don't know what I'd do without this," says the dark-haired teenage girl in a red T-shirt while she puts on a pair of boxing gloves. Fifteen-year-old Dalia from Palestine is one of dozens of refugees who meet and train at BC Hanseat, a boxing club in the heart of Hamburg. For most of them, the club has become a social lifeline - a place to make friends, spend a few hours and even practice some German in between sparring bouts. 

"We left Palestine six years ago," Dalia tells Deutsche Welle in German. She already speaks the language with just a hint of an accent. "Last year, we came to Hamburg and we hope we'll be allowed to stay. I always wanted to join a fighting club. When I got here, the social worker in my school found this place for me. The first time I tried to box it was really hard but now I like it a lot." 

For Dalia, it is as much about the friendship as the fighting. It is good to meet others who have come to Germany as refugees, she says. They have made similar journeys and understand the pressures of living with uncertainty. Dalia's family still do not know what the future holds for them. Hussein Ismail, who runs BC Hanseat, is more than familiar with a situation like Dalia's. 

He is a Kurd who fled Iraq in 1979 to make a new life in Germany. He went to Hanover, Hamburg, and Göttingen, where he trained to be a mechanic. "I always boxed, wherever I lived," says Hussein, in between greeting club members who arrive for training. One of them brings a black baby vest with the boxing club logo on it. 

Hussein has just become a father for the second time and proudly shows off the photos of his little boy on his mobile phone. His passion for boxing never left him. In 1993, Hussein formed the club with just seven or eight founding members. Now they have around 80. The club has produced champions at the local, regional and national level. 

During the week, its members train in a former school sports hall in Hamburg's St. Pauli district, right beside the Reeperbahn, a street famous for its night clubs and adult entertainment. Last December, Hussein and the other coaches decided to do something for the refugees who were coming to the city. "We heard of the stress in the refugee hostels - of aggression and a lack of things to do. So we went there and handed out leaflets inviting people to train with us." 

Around 40 came along. Most of them have stayed with the club. Some are now champion boxers. They come from the Middle East, North Africa, or the Balkans and they mix easily with the German fighters. There are men and women, young and old boxers. Hussein's language skills help: he speaks Kurdish, Persian and Arabic. "I try to speak German with them most of the time, though," he says. 

Hussein says the sport teaches discipline and respect, and that can be important for people whose lives have been turned upside down. Last month, the German Olympic Sport Federation (DOSB) named BC Hanseatic one of its flagship clubs in the "Integration through Sport" program - an accolade that Hussein cherishes. 

The organizers say the club deserves respect for its achievements. All this happens with a lot of volunteer work and local sponsorship. Businesses from the area, which is well known for its love of all things multicultural, back the club with money, equipment, or offers of beer and lemonade for the summer party. The refugee issue is close to people's hearts in this part of Hamburg. BC Hanseat is part of a much wider phenomenon. 

All across Germany, sporting organizations are opening their doors to refugees. The flipside of the coin is that, in some areas, there are now waiting lists for the more popular clubs. For Dalia, integration through sport is no abstract concept. She has made friends and she is learning new skills. She is proud of BC Hanseat, and of being a boxer. Does she want to box competitively? “Of course!” she laughs.

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