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Laureus charity boxing project helps young Berliners on way to a brighter future

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By Gerhard Waldherr
Everyone has a story. Ali, Muhammad and Nebojscha, children of immigrants who grew up in Berlin-Neukölln, could tell theirs now. They could tell you how life on the streets works, how they were dragged into the problems and turmoil of the Rollberg district, how they were vying for attention and respect, and how the kids in their neighbourhood are divided into "checkers" and "losers" with very little in-between. Perpetrators and victims. They could tell you about the fights, the charges for theft and aggravated assault and the brutality they have encountered - psychological terror, humiliation, a fist in the face.
Ali Faour, Mohammed El-Mosleh and Nebojscha Radosavljevic are friends. Ali and Mohammed, both 17 and of Lebanese Arab descent, grew up together. They have known Nebojscha, 19, who everybody calls Nebo, for five years. They enjoy going together to a café. They play cards or sit at the computer, playing car racing video games, watching You Tube or sending messages on Facebook. Ali says: "We’re just trying to have some fun." Today, they are sitting on a bench in an old gymnasium. Bare walls, sand bags, a boxing ring in the back corner. Ali says: "You know, Arabs, Turks or Serbs like Nebo - it makes no difference. If you have a heart, you have a heart." Mohammed says: "If you don’t have any friends, you’re a nobody." It may sound pathetic, but it is meant seriously. However, they do not tell their story anyway.
Neue Krugallee 219, the Treptow district. The coach arrives. He is a strong man with a pleasantly soft voice. First question: "Which one of you is fasting?" It is the 10th August and the second week of Ramadan. Of the eleven boys present, eight raise their hands. "Okay," says the coach, "if you feel sick, go out and rinse your mouth with water." Then it starts: warm up, rope jumping, sandbags. This is followed by focus pad training. The session is then rounded off with some exercise for the back muscles. "Stop chatting” shouts the coach: "The most important exercise here is discipline, so shut up and listen!" The coach yells: "Come on, up, up, come on!" He corrects: "Do not over-arch your back!" He says: "Come on, tense your buttocks!" Buttocks? One of them asks: "What's that?" The trainer: "Buttocks are your arse."
His name is Thomas Jansen, and he leads the "Kick im Boxring" (Kick in the boxing ring), part of the Berlin Kick project, which is run by the Berlin Senate in cooperation with the police and the Berlin Sports Federation. It offers young people from socially deprived areas the opportunity to practise sports. It allows them to learn some rules and discover values such as fairness, respect and tolerance while staying away from the street and drugs. So that they "do not get any stupid ideas," adds Jansen. This is a classic crime prevention exercise, although it took Jansen "a lot of persuading" to convince the police that this can be achieved through boxing. They said: "Now they will become trained thugs, which will cause even more problems'" This was in 2007. Now, Kick im Boxring has four bases in Berlin. In total, 250 children and adolescents are looked after and supported by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and its patrons Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.
Jansen was a boxer. He was a talented amateur welterweight. He was Berlin champion and North German champion and lost only three fights. As a professional, he only won two fights. "I didn’t live for it," says Jansen, "I got into the wrong crowd, signed contracts in the pub and so on." He always bears this is mind when he is looking after young people and children of immigrants who are particularly vulnerable when it comes to getting on the wrong track: "They grow up with fear of the society, the government and our culture. Their response is violence, because violence gives them a sense of strength, produced by power. "How can boxing help? "When boxing, they can work off their aggressions in a healthy way to develop a good sense of strength. Boxing also forces you to take responsibility. How do I deal with resistance and challenges? Do I run away or do I face them? If you hang around in Neukölln, like Ali, Mohammed or Nebo, then you ask yourself this question every day. "
Neukölln is Berlin's 8th administrative district. It has 312,000 inhabitants from 165 countries. 38 percent of the residents and 60 percent of the teenagers were not born in Germany. One in four is unemployed. Every second baby grows up in a "Hartz IV" household (family where nobody is working). 25 percent of secondary school pupils are absent more than 21 days a year. The job centre in Neukölln has the lowest placement rate in Germany. While there are not enough doctors, security guards monitor the schools. Neukölln has the lowest number of kindergartens, youth centres and retirement homes in Berlin. Altogether, this paints a catastrophic image. "Neukölln" writes Wikipedia, "is repeatedly mentioned as a prominent example of a whole range of social problems."
Neukölln has long been synonymous with an urban disaster. Lack of education. Youth violence. Crime. A parallel society. This applies primarily to the Rollberg-Kiez neighbourhood, between Hermann and Karl Marx Street, where Wilhelminian-style buildings are interspersed with the concrete blocks from the "economic miracle" era. This is an area where two-thirds of the residents are immigrants and drug trafficking and crime are rampant. Arab and Turkish family clans rule entire streets. Feuding youth gangs call themselves Arabian Gangster Boys or Neukölln Ghetto Boys and happy slapping is de rigueur around here. To hit someone is cool. Whoever strikes the hardest is the coolest. Neukölln mayor Heinz Buschkowsky once said regarding this situation: "Multiculturalism in Germany has failed."
They grew up in Neukölln. Ali grew up in a family with six siblings, his father unemployed, his mother a housewife. They have four rooms and he still shares a room with his four brothers, who are aged between 14 and 19: "Sure, there's always trouble." Muhammad has seven siblings. One of his older brothers has beat him once, simply because he caught him with a cigarette. "There is always stress on the streets," says Nebo. "Only recently, somebody pulled a knife on me again" There is no hanging around and boredom at home. Instead, macho posturing and violence reign on the street. Things would have remained this way if they had not found out about the Kick im Boxring project, which has its base in the sports hall, Halle der Neuköllner Sportfreunde, Oderstraße 182. Since then, they train three times a week. "Boxing", says Ali, "saved us." If you ask Mohammed what he likes about it, he says: "Everything: the sweat, the pain, competing, winning, training, just everything." He has won all six of the fights he has entered and now he wants to become a professional. Ali: "Muhammad believes in himself, he will make it."
Personal responsibility, commitment, self-awareness. It is that simple. It is a pleasure to watch them in Treptow, where Jansen holds a two-week summer camp every year. Young, well-groomed men who come right on time to introduce themselves. They motivate and coach each other during training and are role models for the training group. Jansen says: "When they came here, they were just wild, each sparring exercise was war." They were very angry and had a lot of strength, but no control over it. In one of his early fights, Ali sat on his opponent and hammered him with blows. That was because, previously, he had had no hope of winning by fair means. Jansen made some enquiries and found out that Ali was arrested for theft shortly before, and "was suffering from stress everywhere: in the family, at school," Jansen spoke to his father and to the police. Ali says: "Thomas doesn’t just talk he does things too. He helps us to find jobs and gives us advice on educational matters" In addition, he supports Muhammad's sporting ambitions. Jansen: "He needs to take it slowly, it is important not to burn out"
"To judge them like a schoolmaster," says Jansen, "doesn’t get you anywhere. You have to listen and talk about your own experiences, then you can get through to them. As a result, they stop skipping school, start doing their homework and set themselves goals in boxing and in life. Ali has decided to work towards obtaining a secondary school leaving certificate and later study business administration. In a few days, Nebo will start his training at Deutsche Telekom. Mohammed is still looking for an apprenticeship, but works as a coach for Jansen on a freelance basis: "He is learning that giving is as important as taking." What about hopelessness, frustration and hanging out looking for trouble? Ali: "That was before." This is why they do not like telling their story. What counts is not the past but what is happening today. This makes them proud.