The short boy runs toward the ball, laughing and joking as his tiny legs weave among his little friends on the football field. Right foot, left foot, then a turn, and he makes it to the goal. Though missing his mark, he dashes back for a new attack. His verve make him look just like any other boy engaged in play — except that he carries a legal and social label that reads “refugee.”

Mannheim’s Institute of Sports organizes these football training sessions for children 8 to 15 years old – an essential part of the project to ease assimilation for refugees in Germany.

Four months ago, the 13-year-old boy trudged all the way from Iraq to Germany with his mother and two older sisters, searching for a safe and normal life. They fled their home from religious- and war-related conflicts.

For the boy’s family, this is the second camp they were sent to, after Heidelberg, a city south of Mannheim. Soon, they will be transferred to a new camp. The identity of the boy will be protected for his safety. Visibly concerned, he cast furtive glances to each side and nervously shoved his hands into and out of his tracksuit pockets.

“I’m afraid that if they (the Iraqi people) find out that we’re here, they will come and kill my sisters,” the boy divulged.

The boy and his family are among the wave of more than 1 million migrants and refugees who came to Europe in 2015 as so-called “Syrian refugee crisis.” The constant media coverage includes statistics and issues associated with the crisis, as well as Eurostat’s list of top five countries of origin for the refugees — Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, and Albania.

Germany is, by far, the most desired country to settle in. The opinions of Germans toward the migrants are diverse and, based on the last local elections in Baden-Württemberg (one of the Germany’s 16 federal states) in March, shifting from democratic to more right wing parties.

Initially supposed to go to France, the 13-year-old boy’s family was forced to make alternate plans. The person they trusted for safe passage to France reneged on the agreement.

“The smuggler just took the money and disappeared, so we had to figure out the way on our own and start walking,” the boy clarified in near-perfect English.

In addition to English, he speaks his native Kurdish and Arabic, as well as some German. His language skills were an advantage as the family entered through Turkey and continued their painful journey to Germany. Sleeping in the woods, dealing with the cold weather and poor amount of food supplies, they eventually managed to reach safe ground.

“We mostly bought clothes. I wanted to bring my PlayStation 3, but of course, I couldn’t,” the boy joked, with a laugh and slight shrug of his shoulders.

The refugee camp in Mannheim is a former military complex, where around four thousand refugees, mostly families, currently live. The camp is clean and big with consistently structured military buildings. It is suitable for children who can freely ride the bicycles, rollerblades and little scooters without the danger of traffic. The police protect the camps at all times, which is more than necessary considering the camps were burned down by the right wing extremists. According to the “Tagesschau,” the German daily news broadcast, there were 924 cases of mistreatments of the refugee camps in 2015, which includes breaking the furniture, threatening refugees’ safety and the burning down of the camps’ facilities. Despite the Mannheim camp’s safety characteristics, it is also somewhat isolated. Though permitted to leave, the refugees very rarely venture  out of the camp and into the city center.

“I like it in the camp here; it’s better than in my own country. But it’s also boring. Just eating – sitting, eating – sitting. We will become fat,”  the boy teased.

His laugh was honest and audible. A wide smile lightened some of the gloomy shadows on his dark complexion.

“I don’t really like the food. It is not tasty and they don’t put any salt in it. In Iraq, we’re used to salty food, with lots of spices and sauces,” he confessed.

To pass the time, he likes to play football and violent video games, through which he learned English. Every Wednesday and Saturday, two trainers or coaches from the Institute of Sports come to coordinate the football training sessions. One of the coordinators is Dominik Hölter, 24, from Stuttgart, Germany.

“It feels great to be part of this project because you get to see the smiles on children’s faces,” emphasized Hölter, a business master’s student in Mannheim. “The reason why the Institute of Sports organizes the games is to improve the children’s lives. Of course, children always want to play, but when they see us, they become very fascinated to see people from outside.”

The language barrier remains to be the biggest difficulty for this project. Most of the children speak only in their own languages and dialects. The Institute’s main coach speaks Arabic, so it makes it easier to communicate. When he’s not there, the 13-year-old Iraqi boy helps with the translation.

“Football does not know any languages; you only need the good spirit and energy,” added Hölter..

The project not only helps the refugees to adapt more easily to their new culture, but Hölter also believes it allows the local Germans to better understand the situation.

“With such projects, the locals realize that the refugees are not here to do anything bad, but only to live their life normally,” Hölter noted.

Understanding and acceptance of the refugees is much higher among young people than among the older people. Germany’s public opinion is shifting toward the right-wing parties, those who would rather have the immigrants stop coming in and go somewhere else.

“The right-extreme parties are most successful in the places with the least refugees and migrants. In general, that’s funny, because those people who experience the immigrants the least are worried the most. I think that says a lot about the situation and the mindset of people,” clarified David Gertis, 25, a business mathematics master’s student originally from Engen.

At the beginning of the current migration crisis, the Germans were extremely helpful, collecting even more supplies, such as clothes, furniture and food, than there were workers and volunteers to sort them out and distribute. That same general public is now more scared and insecure for the future of its country.

Gertis views politicians and citizens who say that it’s not the German problem with skepticism. Those people think that the refugees should not intervene with the good and peaceful German life. Additionally, he thinks that even though the financial calculations indicate that accepting that many people is extremely expensive, the German economy can handle it.

“Let’s think of the second World War, when there were actually many more German refugees, probably around 10 million. So think about 10 million people leaving their own country, and what did the people do at that time? They helped us. Isn’t it our obligation now to help in a situation where it is not so hard for us to help?” Gertis asked.

In opposition, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is gaining more support from the citizens based on opposition to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. In the German media, the party has been labeled as the “right-wing” and “populist”, even though its representatives claim for the party to be conservative and just like any other political party. AfD  has been criticized for opposing everything without offering a concrete solution. “Der Spiegel,” the Germany’s most popular political magazine, puts the party into the populist frame, gaining support mostly from Internet and from developing quick, provocative messages.

Despite growing criticism at home and abroad, Merkel continues to insist that Germany can and should accommodate up to 1 million refugees this year. Claus Nielsen, the AfD’s Mannheim spokesman, questioned the disproportional distribution of refugees in Europe.

“We want that all the European countries help us, but no other European country would help. A concrete example: France will take 30,000 refugees, and that is what is coming in one weekend to Munich. The UK will take 7,500. The interesting question is: Why isn’t the United States of America not taking any refugees?” said Nielsen, who is originally from Denmark.

The biggest issue Nielsen and AfD see is the lack of strategy in Merkel’s plan.

“Mrs. Merkel has no idea what to do with these people, she has no idea where they should live, how they can work in Germany and that is the big problem. She has no plan,” he argued.

Likewise, AfD conservatives have not proposed concrete solutions for the crisis. However, they want the problem to be solved outside of Germany.

“We should help the foreigners in the countries where they’re coming from, and not in Europe,” emphasized Nielsen. “We should help them in Syria, in Egypt with jobs, with humanitarian work and everything, but not let them move to Europe.”

A somewhat different perspective comes from 26-year-old business mathematics master’s student Vitali Bauer, a Russian German whose family came from Russia to Germany in 1997, when he was 8 years old. Bauer distinguished between different waves of immigration, mainly the people who came to Germany from the Soviet Union, the ‘60s and ‘70s wave of guest workers, and the ‘90s migrants from former Yugoslavia.

            “Today, Germany needs more highly educated workers. That’s why I think the integration of current refugees won’t work as it did, for example, 20 or 30 years ago,” explained Bauer. “I think the best way to integrate people is to let them work and let them do something useful. As far as I know, most of the immigrants now don’t have the qualifications to get a job.”

The shift in public opinion in Germany towards the refugees is growing exponentially. The people were welcoming at the beginning of the immigration, and now, as the negative media coverage and reports about the refugees started blowing the everyday newsfeeds, the citizens are more anxious about the whole situation. The rising right-wing parties opposing the refugees coming in have gained more followers and political power. From this point on, the refugees have all been put in one basket associated with bad and negative connotations.

Despite the different public opinions and political debates about the correct decisions and solutions for the refugee crisis, all the little Iraqi boy wants is a normal life in Germany. Describing his simple and honest hopes and expectations for the future, the boy, who will turn 14 on May 7, eagerly raises his eye-brows above big glimmering brown eyes, and then interrupts  his thoughts and to ask a rather heart-breaking question.

“What do I need to do to become a professional football player? Do you think that’s possible for me?”

Photos by the German Institute of Sport