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 at the bottom of the boat, pinned to the floor by the limbs and bodies of 50 other people who had been piled at gunpoint into the 6m-long inflatable dinghy now precariously drifting across choppy Mediterranean waters. Had her sister said “fishes”? Sulin could barely make out Hanan’s voice amid the screams of the other passengers, rising and falling with each wave. Sulin 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. He retired in 2014, a year before Germany become the destination for around 890,000 asylum seekers, many of them fleeing war-torn regions in Syria and Iraq. The 66-year-old was not among the large crowds of volunteers who welcomed the new arrivals at German train stations: he was sceptical about the wave of euphoria that swept through the country, and thought there was something “perverse” about Germans who posted pictures of themselves donating clothes on social media. But 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. Thanks to subsidies from Demokratie Leben! (“Living Democracy”), a funding programme for local integration initiatives by the German family and youth ministry, he was able to make his course affordable. Parents at regular swimming courses in the city pay around €120 (£105) for 10 one-hour sessions, but Schütte charges €40 for six two-hour sessions. “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.” Lessons take place in groups of up to 25 learners, usually a mix of children and grownups, and boys and girls, and are strictly held in German. When some local parents complained that “the refugees” were blocking slots at the pool, Schütte had a word with them: the point of these courses was that they and their children were invited, too. The Elias Abdo sisters were some of Schütte’s first pupils. Working in teams of two, he started with them lying on their backs in shallow water, their heads immersed up to their ears. “Some of my students find that absolutely terrifying at first. But we tell them: use my arms as a support and just trust me. Once you’ve built up trust and lost fear, you begin to learn incredibly quickly.” When the beginners are comfortable lying in the water, Schütte and his team of assistants tell them to breathe into their stomachs, to make the rest of the body rise to the surface. “At that moment, most people realise that you can float in the water without any support from your helper.”
Once the girls realised how easy it was to float, they started moving their limbs more freely. The Wolfsburg municipal pool is equipped with an adjustable floor, allowing Schütte gradually to increase the depth from 80cm to 2.6 metres. He built up their confidence by encouraging them to play with the previously hostile element, by blowing bubbles in the water, splashing each other or jumping off the sides. Some of the pupils in the group turned out to be more of a handful to teach than others. Daoud Shivan, an 11-year-old Iraqi also from the Sinjar mountains, who found out about the swimming class from the Elias Abdo girls, had a tendency to fool around in the water rather than concentrate on his exercises, so much so that Schütte threatened to throw him out of the group. The warning worked: two lessons later, he passed his bronze swimming badge exam. Daoud’s younger brother Sala, seven, was more serious, and at times overly cautious. Even after passing his bronze, he preferred to swim near the edge of the pool. The Mediterranean Sea he crossed in a boat one night in September 2015 was the first open body of water he had ever seen. “It looked so deep,” he recalls. “And I didn’t know how to swim.” Schütte is quick to insist that he does not have the right qualifications to describe what he does as trauma counselling. “All we can do is help people overcome fears and build up their self-confidence.” Even with the ambitious Elias Abdo sisters, the process took over four months. Hanan, now 15, who had seen the “big fish” gliding through the Mediterranean, struggled most to overcome her fears: even when she managed to swim without help, she did so only on her back, staring up at the ceiling. “Swimming on my front was really difficult for me. Whenever I put my head under water, I was back in the deep blue sea. I was scared and I couldn’t move.” One day, with the pool floor lowered to its full 2.6 metres, Schütte made Hanan lie on her stomach with only a swimming board underneath her. “He said he would just let go and I would have to go on my own,” she recalls. “And then that was it – it worked.” She is now one of the most enthusiastic swimmers on the course. Asked what she would do if she was back on the Greek shore in a rubber dinghy now, she says: “I would jump into the water and swim, of course.” She has spent the last few months trying to convince their mother to join them in the pool and has offered to teach her how to swim, with no success so far. After today’s swimming session, Schütte invites the girls over to have lunch with him and his wife, Bria, their two border collies, Amigo and Finn, and their four cats. As we walk through the front door, Sulin freezes. Dogs scare her more than water. She tiptoes along the wall, bending her body away from the canines’ enquiring snouts. She has almost made it through to the kitchen when her swimming instructor notices what is going on. “Hey, Sulin,” he says, and walks her back to the front door. They repeat the walk to the kitchen, this time striding through the middle of the corridor. “You must walk straight, without fear.”
I dream a lot that I am back in Iraq. Everything is good again, and we all play together
The teacher said he would just let go and I would have to go on my own. And it worked
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. Their father, a hairdresser, had already travelled to Germany to meet relatives living in Bavaria and lay the ground for the rest of the family eventually to follow him, but now 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. “Someone had thrown a bomb on to the street, and it looked like an earthquake had struck.” Wolfsburg, the Lower Saxon city in which the Elias Abdo family ended up, and where they still live in an asylum seekers’ home while they wait for an apartment big enough for the entire family, struggles to excite even by standards of German provincialism. Built around the Volkswagen motorworks established in the Nazi era, it has benefited from the decades-long boom in the country’s car industry (how many other municipal swimming pools can afford an adjustable floor?), but still remains the kind of place many Germans commute to. Few visit of their own free will. For Hanan Elias Abdo, however, it is a source of pride. Asked which part of Germany she finds most beautiful, she replies without pause: “Here.” Does she not mind the drizzly weather, the lack of sunshine? “The weather doesn’t matter when your family is together.” Her youngest sister Sulin already knows that people in Lower Saxony have a reputation for speaking the cleanest form of Hochdeutsch, Germany’s equivalent of received pronunciation. Having started their swimming course without speaking the native tongue, the three girls now fluently converse with each other in German, and share private jokes about Bavarians and their rolling Rs. If Schütte thinks that swimming can help young asylum seekers find a path in the country they now call their home, it’s because he believes that water doesn’t just counteract the pull of gravity. The pool is meant to be a faith-free zone. “In my swimming course, religion has to go to the back of the queue,” he says over a plate of pasta with pumpkin ragout prepared by his wife. “We swim together, no matter what people believe in. That is something that is very important to me and that I am very frank about.”
Sometimes, German frankness can cause friction. The only thing that annoys them about their swimming instructor, the girls say, is when he tells them to be less awkward about talking to the boys in their class. Yazidis traditionally marry young, and strictly within their own faith and a tripartite caste system. Last year, the three girls said they were sure that they would never move back to Iraq after the discrimination and persecution they experienced. When I ask if they still feel the same, Hanan says, “Move back? No.” Then, after a short pause: “But maybe visit and see people there, perhaps help people who couldn’t leave, that would be a dream.” “I would really like that,” Helin adds. Then Sulin interrupts her older sisters. “I dream a lot that I am back in Iraq. Everything is good again, and we all play together. Our family is back in our old house, and the sun is shining.” The three girls wistfully recall the smell of the sweet wheat pudding their family used to prepare for the spring festival of Xidir Ilyas, a nostalgic hole even Bria’s moreish spaghetti can’t quite fill. “Faith and tradition is very important to this family,” Schütte says later, after the girls have gone home. “Of course it will be interesting to see what the girls will go on to do, whether they will stay within the conventions of their faith or adjust to their environment here in Germany.” For now, the pool can suspend the pressures bearing on them outside. The Shivan brothers have moved to the nearby town of Leiferde, which has no direct bus routes to the swimming pool. The Elias Abdo sisters remain determined, however. All three have their silver swimming badges, and the eldest have their rescue swimming badges in bronze. 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.”
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