Accessibility links

Germany: Sport Helps Emigrants From Ex-Soviet States Succeed (Part 2)

  • Sophie Lambroschini

A large majority of Germany's 2.5 million repatriates or "Aussiedler" -- immigrants granted citizenship on the basis of their German ancestry -- come from Soviet successor states, mostly Russia and Kazakhstan. They are ethnic Germans from the Volga region and Crimea, deported by Josef Stalin in 1942 under gruesome conditions to Central Asia and Siberia. But now, as they and their families struggle to adjust to life in Germany, they face huge challenges. In the second half of a two-part series on repatriates in Germany from the former Soviet Union, RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the efforts of a former Soviet boxing coach to help newly arrived youth -- and to forge a new generation of German boxing champions.

Berlin, 3 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Skipping easily from German to Russian and back again, Aleksandr Wotilow throws instructions like punches in the ring to a group of young boxers during training in the German capital.

He illustrates his orders with gestures -- a jab here, a right uppercut there. The 10 or so teenage boys and girls nod in understanding, their lips bulging over mouth guards.

The kids are members of the Neukoelln boxing club in a working-class neighborhood south of Berlin's center. A few are local Turkish and German youth. But most come from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Almost 75 percent of repatriate "Aussiedler" -- emigrants of German descent from Soviet successor states -- are under the age of 40. Their integration is crucial to the success of Germany's immigration policy.

But local authorities are concerned that many of them know little German, fail at school and on the job market, and slip into delinquency.

Wotilow is a professional boxer from the Altay, just north of the Kazakh border. He has the characteristic broken nose and is built like a rock. In the training room, the awards won by his "kids" stand in rows on a shelf and a billboard is covered with certificates, awards, and newspaper clippings. Wotilow is proud of his "kids." He says they turned a handicap into an asset: "Maybe the Russians are more motivated to win.... A German child has a computer. He has toys. But the Russians just arrived -- they don't have any of that.... So [the Russian] will try to pull himself out of this [situation]. He'll try to find himself a warm place in the sun, and [knows] that no one will give it to him -- he has to go and get it himself.... And the Germans, they don't have that motivation. They already have it all."

Natalya Kalinowski, with delicate features and long black hair, is Wotilow's pride. Just two years after making the difficult move from Kazakhstan, the 17-year-old has become the junior world flyweight champion in kickboxing. And her sister Yelena is now Berlin champion.

Natalya says that sports helped boost their self-confidence during a difficult transition after their arrival. As they did not know any German, the girls were put in classes with younger kids. They say contact with German classmates is still difficult: "They're all about 15-years-old in our class, and our relations are bad. When they see that we're successful in sports, and at school, that we do better than them, their attitude towards us is [unfriendly]...I don't know why but we just can't make it work. We have more contacts with the Turks, with the 'auslaender' ["foreigners" in German]. We have better relations with them."

Natalya's sister says it was a shock to leave her friends, family, and native country. But Yelena says opportunities would have been scarce in Kazakhstan, whereas anything is possible in Germany. After a tough start, she now believes her future is brighter than it ever would have been "back home."

In Kazakhstan, Natalya and Yelena's mother and father worked as a pharmacist and engineer, respectively. But like many emigrants, they have had to accept a lower social and professional status to survive in their adopted country. They both trained to become nurses for the elderly.

The parents hope their daughters will get a university degree and open a boxing club.

Wotilow says the success of these kids is often a boost for the whole family. For parents who lay aside their ambitions for the sake of their children, the success of a child can help justify some of their initial disappointments and hardships.

Wotilow points out that many families wrongly believe that life in Germany can only be easier than at home. He says he made the same mistake. He gave up a prestigious job in Russia training boxers for European and world championships to come to Germany, only to find that he had no chance to work in his profession. For three years, Wotilow did odd jobs -- "surviving," he says.

Four years ago, he heard the Neukoelln boxing club was looking for an amateur coach. Wotilow jumped at the prospect, even bringing in a retired colleague from Kazakhstan.

Wotilow says he believes their work has kept many non-German speaking teenagers out of trouble. He says boxing helps vent frustrations that can otherwise lead to delinquency: "Everything seems to be going wrong, everything makes you blue, you don't understand why things are the way they are.... But when you come here [for training], it's very clear: Here are the [boxing] gloves, here's an adversary, here's the bag. You can punch it and let all that negative energy spurt out."

Anatolii Graf, a former university professor from St. Petersburg, runs a support group for repatriates in Berlin. Graf believes the German authorities should focus more on youth problems and less on welfare support. According to Graf, Germany's generous housing and social subsidies for repatriates, although necessary, have "an adverse effect on integration."

Many repatriates just lock themselves in their new apartments, surviving on welfare. He says many never make the transition to their new world, unlike Wotilow's boxers: "These kids show that it doesn't have to be that way, that you have to punch your way through."