Alexa Vachon

2016 - 2018

Berlin, Germany

18-year-old Sana wakes up at 6am every day in the apartment she shares with her three sisters and mother on the outskirts of Berlin. She rides the S-Bahn 45 minutes across town and shows up for class by 8am. In school she learns history, geography and math but mostly she learns German. It's a far cry from her life in Kabul, Afghanistan where, instead of going to school or learning how to read and write, she worked as a hairdresser. Now, five days a week Sana goes to school. Once a week she leaves school to put on borrowed football cleats to join her teammates at Champions ohne Grenzen (Champions without Borders, "CHoG" for short), a football team for refugee women in Berlin, Germany. The players come from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Somalia and Albania. They are all Muslim. For most of them, this is the first time they have ever played football.

In 2015, 1,100,000 million refugees and asylum seekers arrived in Germany. No exact figures for Berlin exist, but it's estimated that between 45-65,000 of them settled and continue to live in Germany's capital. The numbers are unprecedented but do little to humanize the individuals behind by the statistics.

Since August 2016 I've been photographing the remarkable young women of "Champions ohne Grenzen," all new arrivals to Germany who came during the influx of refugees in 2015 and range in age from 16-24. These young women are students, athletes, mothers and sisters who are building a foundation for their new lives. I've watched them develop and learn German, question their surroundings and grow as women while navigating their way between two worlds.

Football is a vehicle for social change that transcends borders between people, cultures, religions and countries. This project focuses on football and the ‘sport for social change’ aspect of sport – touching on themes including gender equality, health and education access, integration and religion. It emphasises success in spite of adversity without glossing over reality. What are the positive effects on the players’ lives and in their communities? What are some of the hurdles they face? The women of 'Rise' are living examples of the power of sport and this project witnesses and validates the critical first years of development in a new home.

The images include intimate moments both on and off the field – the players in their daily lives, with their families, as they navigate German bureaucracy, during language classes and in the new relationships they build in Berlin. Instead of reinforcing negative stereotypes of Muslim culture, the project focuses on the positive effects of football and delves into the lives of players who embody the qualities of ‘fair play’ – respect, determination and ambition. I aim to highlight the women of my city, reaching out to the refugee community, exploring how they use sport as an outlet and tool for self-development and integration.

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