German youth football team rallies behind ‘star players’ facing deportation

When some of their best players received a deportation notice to return to Afghanistan, a boys' football team in Hesse decided to step up to help them stay with their newfound "family".

German youth football team rallies behind 'star players' facing deportation
The boys' football team in Taunusstein. Photo: Private

The boys’ SV Seitzenhahn football team in Taunusstein, Hesse, used to be a losing team, at the bottom of the table.

“We were for the longest time always at the bottom of the league, in the last third,” says coach Alexander Seber.

But when a group of refugee boys joined the team, something dramatic happened: they started winning.

“Then we were second in the league. That was super for all. The [new boys] made a great contribution to this,” Seber explained.

The coach is referring in part to the four Saeedi brothers, ranging in age from 8 to 16, who came to Germany with their parents about two years ago, seeking asylum.

Their journey to Europe was a long one. First they fled Kabul and their war-torn country to stay in a refugee camp in Iran – for years, the boys told The Local over video chat one afternoon, surrounded by their teammates in the home of one of their friends.

But in Iran, which has struggled to care for some three million Afghan refugees, the Saeedi family faced an uphill battle in finding work and education for the four boys.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have accused the Iranian government of mistreating its Afghan refugee population by restricting their job opportunities, access to schools for children, and deporting thousands without allowing them to apply for asylum or prove they have a right to stay.

So the family ultimately left for Germany and arrived in 2015, along with around 890,000 other asylum seekers, as Chancellor Angela Merkel famously promised that year “Wir schaffen das” – we can do it.

The family of six travelled by boat and by foot, which took about one month from Iran, recalls the oldest, Navid, 16.

“It was horrible, it was really difficult,” he says in fluent German.

“Germany is much better than other counties. The people are really nice and very friendly.”

Two years later and the boys all speak German, the older two studying English as well, thanks to their American football teammates. The second youngest, Nazif, is set in August to begin Gymnasium – the most advanced level of secondary school in Germany, aimed at university-track students.

The boys and their teammates now describe one another as a “family” more so than a team.

When asked once by one of their American friends what they planned to do in their new country, Navid replied: “We will be Germans.”

But that future now seems uncertain after the family recently received a deportation notice from German authorities.

“I think it would be bad if we have to leave, I think it really sucks,” says 11-year-old Nazif.

His older brother Navid found the deportation notice hard to talk about during a telephone call with The Local. When asked about it, he handed the phone to someone else.

Three of the Saeedi brothers on the left, with two of their American friends on the right. Photo: private

‘Not alone’

Germany’s deportations of rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan have been hotly debated, especially as Merkel’s government seeks to prove itself tough on immigration ahead of the upcoming election, and in response to hostile reactions towards her refugee policies from certain sectors of the population.

The subject of deportation is often raised in light of headline-grabbing cases of asylum seekers committing crimes, such as the hundreds of sexual assaults reported on New Year’s Eve 2015-16 in cities like Cologne, largely linked to immigrant men.

It then emerged that the man responsible for killing 12 people in the Berlin Christmas market attack in December should have been deported months earlier, leading the government to push through tough new measures to strengthen the deportation process.

SEE ALSO: German parliament passes tough new rules for asylum, deportation

But critics take issue with how the German government has long still considered Afghanistan to be safe, despite warnings from NGOs and a United Nations report in February that showed there had been a record number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan last year, with nearly 3,500 killed and more than 7,900 injured.

The interior ministry counts around 12,000 Afghan citizens living in the country as “obligated to leave the country”, but around 10,000 of them are considered tolerated.

Germany recently started a programme of group deportations through a deal with Afghanistan to curb immigration. Through this, a total of 92 people were flown to Kabul between December and March.

After the major truck bomb attack on Wednesday in Kabul – the Saeedi boys' hometown – which killed more than 90 people and wounded hundreds more, the German government announced it would suspend deportations to the country for the time being, except for “voluntary repatriations and deportations of violent extremists and criminals in individual cases.”

The government is set to reevaluate the security situation in the country by July. Groups like refugee advocacy organization Pro Asyl welcomed the decision, but demand that the deportations now be scrapped for good.

“The decision to deport is not based on the reality in Afghanistan, it’s based on wanting to deter refugees, and on a relentlessness to show that ‘we deport’,” Karl Kopp from refugee advocacy group Pro Asyl told The Local.

When told about the Saeedi family’s situation, Kopp expressed optimism.

“Right now, they are not deporting families,” he said of immigration officials.

Kopp further said that if he could meet the family, he would tell them “I cannot make promises, you are not alone… but it is not yet the end.”

“To look into the eyes of a family and send them back to a war zone – I hope that the state of law functions.”

A helping hand

Above: An Instagram post by two of the Saeedi boys' teammates, Jackson and Aiden Springer.

The Taunusstein football community also hopes this won’t be the end for the Saeedi family’s life in Germany.

“When we heard about it, we didn’t understand what the coach was saying at first, and Nazir just said he was feeling bad,” says American teammate Aiden Springer.

“It was a huge shock and made us feel sad because we’ve known them for so long.”

After talking with the other boys on the team, Aiden and his twin brother Jackson approached their mum, Toni, about the idea of launching a fundraiser for their friends.

“To see an entire team of teenage boys who we all know are the centre of the universe at this age, become devastated by the prospect that some of their teammates may have to go home back to Afghanistan, that really struck us,” Toni Springer said.

Now the football community, including coach Seber and others, is helping to organize the event set for June 25th to help the family pay for their legal fees of challenging the deportation decision. Neighbours are baking cakes, the Springers are cooking up American barbecues, and restaurants are contributing vouchers to be raffled off.

Toni says getting to know the Saeedi boys and their experiences has also given her a new perspective on larger discussions about the refugee crisis in Europe and in her home country.

“I just wonder sometimes, people who object to this whole refugee thing, how many refugees do they know,” she says.

“I think that Americans really do believe in this whole melting pot, and I think that some of the things that we’re seeing in Europe that Americans are afraid is going to happen in America if we allow refugees to come in, I think that that’s a very real concern to have. But that’s on such a small scale compared to the people who really need our help.”