VIENNA, AUSTRIA - For hundreds of thousands of migrants who have sought to start a new life in Europe this summer, the difficult process of integration into new host countries has just begun, with some finding sports a way to help newcomers, especially the young, adapt.
Fadi Merza, a champion Thai-style boxer who has won several titles, is somewhat of a celebrity in Austria. Merza, a migrant from Syria, also found it hard to fit in at first.
“About 20, or 25 years ago, I came to Austria and I was the same age as these boys in the background. I had no education and no perspective for the future, but then a friend of mine took me to the boxing gym, and that's how I discovered my big passion,” said Merza, a Muay Thai fighter.
Now, he is giving back to society by training migrant children for free as part of the "We Are Part of It" program. Most of them are unattended migrants who live in the Vienna area.
Sport, the Austrian government believes, will speed up the integration process of newcomers to the country.
“And we have seen that integration works best when people are working towards one common goal," said Shanti D'Sa, with the program.
On a recent afternoon, teenagers from Austria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia trained together under Merza's watchful eyes. In the gym, skin color and nationality do not matter.
“It is a multicultural club, so there are many different nationalities and it really does not matter where you are from," he said.
Merza singled out at least one student: 16-year-old Sadiq, originally from Afghanistan, as a possible champion someday.
Said the teenager: “I want to box and it is good. I come here and a good thing that I meet a world champion, and it is my hope that I can meet more world champions and I am so happy that I meet here.”
Sadiq promised that he would continue training. One day, he wants to stand in the ring and become Austria's new champion.