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Photo:  Diana Markosian / Magnum Photos
Yazidi refugee children are overcoming fear of the water in Germany.

One reason I was interested in the following story is that I have worked with Yazidi refugees from Iraq like these. One of the people in the family I know actually has relatives in Germany, where the story takes place.

Philip Oltermann writes at the Guardian, “When Hanan Elias Abdo looked over the side of the rubber boat into the deep blue sea, she could make out two large shapes, moving at speed. Were those dolphins? Or sharks? ‘Did you see the fishes?’ she shouted at her siblings.

“Six-year-old Sulin, the youngest, … was lying on top of a thin patch on the boat’s floor and could feel the water moving underneath her. At home, in the Sinjar mountains in Iraq, she had never more than splashed through an ankle-deep brook. What if the floor gave way and she got pushed into the bottomless depths? What, she thought, if the fishes started nibbling at her feet?

“That was in September 2015. Two and a half years later, Sulin stands atop a starting block in northern Germany, takes a two-step run-up, waggles her arms and legs mid-air, before landing in the 2-metre-deep turquoise water and splashing her giggling sisters who are paddling near the edges. Surfacing, she pulls a funny face at the man with the white beard and white slippers applauding her from the side of the pool. ‘That’s it!’ says Günter Schütte, Germany’s first swimming instructor to specialise in helping to cure refugees’ fear of water.

“Schütte is a teacher with 40 years’ experience teaching politics and sport at schools in Wolfsburg, and a passionate swimmer since he was 13. Throughout his career, he says with pride, he made sure that by the end of the school year there was never a non-swimmer in any of his classes. …

“When Schütte realised that many refugees who arrived in Wolfsburg were families from countries with little open water, and that many children had been traumatised by the journey across the Mediterranean, he decided that swimming could become a tool for better integration.

“From October 2015, he booked a two-hour slot every Sunday at a municipal swimming pool and handed out flyers advertising the course at asylum seekers’ shelters in the area. …

” ‘We take our time,’ he says, ‘because when you are scared, time-pressure is the last thing you need.’

“The purpose of the course was to help the new arrivals ease into an unfamiliar element – in a metaphorical sense, too. ‘By learning how to swim, refugees are no longer shut out from the sports lessons at school,” Schütte says. ‘Some of them also get a head start on their German peers – they have a sense of achievement.’ …

“Sinjar province, where Hanan, Helin and Sulin, now nine years old, grew up, is a traditional stronghold of the Yazidi minority who were declared infidels by al-Qaida and actively targeted by Isis in 2014. Helin, now 12, recalls a phone call late that summer from her grandmother, who lived in the next valley along: Isis fighters were approaching and the villagers had run out of ammunition. …

“There was no time to wait any longer. Their mother, the six siblings and a neighbouring couple all piled into a single car and headed for the Turkish border, leaving behind the two family goats and the cherry and orange trees in their garden. Months later, after crossing the Mediterranean and seven different countries, someone sent Helin a photograph of their village. ‘The war had flattened everything,’ she says. …

“For now, the pool can suspend the pressures bearing on them outside. … Hanan wants to go a step further and get the rescue swimming badge in silver, for which she has to take a jump from a 3-metre board, swim 25 metres underwater in one breath, and rescue a drowning person with pull stroke. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, she doesn’t take long to come up with an answer. ‘I want to become a sports teacher.’ ”

More here.

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