Fighting for a welcoming Europe: the story of Thaer, refugee and karate champion


This testimony is part of our Europe Welcomes campaign.

“You can really set something in motion by simply showing an interest.” writes Kristina Koch, a journalist and refugee worker at the organisation Willkommen in Nippes, in Cologne. She tells us the story of Thaer Jafar, a Syrian refugee with an incredible talent, and reminds us that small gestures can make a world of difference.

From time to time, Thaer sends me a photo that makes me smile. And I remember how everything began.

Thaer Jafar with his karate team mates
Thaer Jafar with his karate team mates

Spring, 2016. Over 300 men are accommodated in a large gym, one of around 10 emergency shelters for refugees in Nippes, my neighbourhood of Cologne.  The gym, as probably most sports halls for refugees, is the worst of all: hardly any space between the camp beds, bad food, dirty bathrooms. My organisation, “Welcome to Nippes“, offers legal advice and all kinds of other useful information. We worry about the gym’s inhabitants, who visibly suffer from lack of privacy, noise, fighting, sleeplessness, sickness, and even suicide attempts. I decide to visit them several times a week just to hang out with anyone who feels like talking.

One of them is Thaer, a 30-year old guy from Damascus. Calm, even-tempered, and with smiley eyes. His wife and two small children are still in Syria. Completely without pathos, he tells me that he is a multi-time national champion and black belt in karate. A Syrian karate champion in my neighbourhood in horrible living conditions. That gets me hooked. I do some research and I find a karate club nearby.

Thaer Jafar wearing his kimono
Thaer Jafar wearing his kimono

A few days later, we are invited to meet with the board members and Thaer can join their karate training. No karate outfit, not one word of German. At the club, everyone is very friendly and a bit excited. Thaer is handed a far-too-big karate suit. Directly afterwards, he is confronted with a massive cultural challenge: women and men share the same locker room. He looks over to me, then shrugs his shoulders as if telling himself that he has mastered other challenges, and he disappears into the locker room.

In the hall, it’s instantly clear that Thaer fits perfectly into the team. How relieving it must be for him to be understood, for once, without words.

I didn’t stay until the end of the practice. I was confident that Thaer was in safe hands and I wanted to let things go their own way.

And, this was how it went: the club members liked the friendly and sincere man and were blown away by his karate skills. They collected money to pay for his membership, and a karate suit that fit perfectly. In 2017, the German Karate Association confirmed his Kyu grade, the highest karate class. In 2018, Thaer and his clubmates traveled to the German national championships. Thaer reached the third rank. Since then, he has been successful in almost every local and national championship. Thaer says he loves fighting for his small Nippes club and dedicates every victory to them.

Welcoming culture is more than handing out food and clothes. It also means listening and caring about the individual.

Thaer Jafar
Thaer Jafar

You can really set something in motion by simply showing an interest. Thaer’s first karate practice, around the corner from the refugee shelter, got the ball rolling. After that, good people around him have been kicking the ball further. A club mate found him a flat. We managed to bring his wife and children to Cologne. Another daughter was born. A bigger flat was found. The whole family is happy in Cologne.

Thaer just passed all the tests to get his qualification as a karate trainer. Maybe one day soon he’ll be running his own Karate School? Who would be better at that than Thaer Jafar – the man who managed to start all over again?

JOIN OUR CAMPAIGN – What you can do to push your city or municipality to become a welcoming city for refugees

Like many people in Germany and other European countries, Kristina Koch and her neighbours founded a Refugees Welcome initiative in 2015. They support refugees and other people seeking help and social contacts. Initiatives like these show clearly that a welcoming spirit is very much alive in local European communities. What we need now are national and European policies to reflect the will of citizens and municipalities. We need to put pressure on the EU and Member States to change EU migration and asylum policy for the better!

Spread the word, join our campaign and sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with #welcomingeurope and our migration campaign!


Kristina Koch
Kristina Koch

More information:
Nina Walch – Rights and Democracy Campaigner