An unprecented number of refugees are crossing into Europe to escape the civil war in Syria and strife in other places. They arrive at the main railway stations in Europe full of stress and fear but also hope. They are hoping a safe future.
In these troubled times, concerned citizens have stepped forward to help in any way they can. One group of chess volunteers led by Kineke Mulder, a web designer, got together to greet the refugees as they arrive at Vienna’s main railway station. They are part of an initiative known as the Train of Hope which offers a welcome and emergency aid to new arrivals. The project started as a Facebook page (Twitter #hbfvie) and just grew.
The problem, as always, is how to communicate with people when you do not speak their language such as Arabic or Farsi and they do not speak German or English. Chess provides a common language – allowing self-expression in a throng of anonymity.
Kineke and her colleagues provide a special chess welcome. They started by setting up several chess boards with tables and chairs in the station concourse. They were immediately surrounded by curious onlookers. Some gladly accepted the challenge to play chess. Others preferred to watch and learn. As usual there were the kibitzers. Soon there were concentrated and happy faces – of volunteers as well as the refugees. Vienna was representing European culture at its best in the form of chess.
Kineke, Johannes Lentner and Christian Srienz are spending between 5 and 15 hours per week on the chess boards. They are keen for other people to join them or to start their own version of meet and greet chess.
What can you do when you hear that asylum seekers have come to the old prison in your town and besides their worries they are also bored? You gather old chess sets from everywhere and you ask your chess club members to donate a new chessboard. That is what happened to Niels van der Mark in Doetinchem in the Netherlands a year ago.
Now, one year later they play weekly in the centre and meet a lot of refugees. Most of the time they exchange only a few words of English. But they play chess the whole afternoon, shake hands and sometimes hug and that’s good. The refugees that come to Doetinchem, a small town near the German border and stay there for about 6-8 weeks. During they stay they learn whether they can stay (most of the time for 5 years) or have to leave. Although they know they know they can stay safely for period of when they come from the civil war in Syria, they are naturally worried about the process. Somehow playing a game of chess eases there mind. It provides a distraction from thinking about their relatives who may also be on the run if they haven’t managed to escape from Syria. On the chessboard they are solving other problems on the chessboard that they have a chance to solve.
During their stay in Doetinchem, the club offers asylum seekers free membership. The club is one way to help them to get into Dutch culture and customs. The club made a business card with its address and a QR-code they can scan which opens Google Maps and the route to the playing location. The card is issued if they would like to play a serious game of chess.
Another way they have found to stay in touch is through Chess.com. Niels invites the asylum seekers to create an account so they can play online once they have left for another centre for. Besides playing chess they can still stay in touch.In this way, Niels kept in touch with Mohammed and learned that he wanted to start a chess club in the centre where he was staying. Niels organised ten boards and pieces and brought it to him. And so he started a chess club in the centre at Deventer.
Fernando Moreno is a school counselor based in Maryland near Washington DC, the US capital. He has for over a decade been developing chess as an instrument of psychological counseling. His approach focuses on improving the social and emotional skills of his students and consequently their academic performance. For new migrants, he supports their adaptation and integration by increasing the involvement of the family in their new school. His innovative technique is to present real life situations as carefully chosen chess positions. The chess position models in some way the decisions that they have to make.
The children that Fernando supports did not start life with many prospects. His school has the lowest income population in the district with 95% of the pupils receiving free school meals. Furthermore, three quarters have limited knowledge of English. Many of them received little schooling in their home country before immigrating. The families may have experienced war, poverty, violence or persecution.
Chess does not have any bounds: it is played in every country. Fernando relates to the newcomers by telling them about chess in their culture. He tells stories of the players and refers to a chess library illustrating games from Central America (El Salvador, Mexico), South America (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia), Asia (China, Vietnam), Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa), Spain and Russia.
Fernando tells the newcomers that their move was not a free choice but was due to external circumstances. He correlates this narrative with chess: if you learn the rules of the game then you can move your own pieces according to one’s own plan. He teaches the children the new rules of the environment, how to take appropriate measures to improve and feel better at the new school, and how to get on with their new teammates.
Chess with Fernando is a noisy, boisterous affair. Playing and talking at the same time gets across his messages more powerfully. The key to the therapeutic effectiveness is a synchronously shared experience. He can sense the feelings and thoughts of his students and this creates a positive atmosphere of trust. They talk through the student’s decisions about their life situation. Fernando recommends using a large floor standing chess board because this results in more insightful conversations, perhaps because body language is more evident.
This is pioneering work and some may question whether it is possible to replicate Fernando’s therapeutic approach because it depends so much on his interpersonal skills. However, he points out that it is not necessary to be a strong chess player – only to play at the same level as the pupils. It is even a bonus if the pupils can beat him sometimes. He can explore decision making in circumstances of inexperience and ignorance. They learn together to find the best chess moves as they might do in real life.
Fernando will be presenting his approach at the conference.
Top diagram: Fernando is introducing parents to chess.
By the end of the year, more than a million refugees who are seeking asylum will have been registered in EU countries. Projects in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have deployed chess as one of the elements assisting the rehabilitation and integration of refugees. One of the features of chess is that it is an international language in itself. People from different coutries can begin to communicate across the board.
One of Germany´s biggest refugee reception centres is located in Munich in the Bayernkaserne. The Münchener Schachstiftung (Munich Chess Foundation) started the initiative in 2011 and then raised support from other foundations. Chess tutors are employed to supervise chess events each Friday where instruction is given to beginners and intermediate players. In another project, a special school for unaccompanied young refugees, Schlau-Schule, ran four classes were run during the last school year. Several of the students had learned the game at the chess meetings in the Bayernkaserne Project supervisor Dijana Dengler of the Münchner Schachstiftung is moved by the memory of how Afghan youngsters started to invite everyone interested to late night chess sessions.
During the first weeks after they have registered their application, many refugees have little to do. When Niels van der Mark learned about refugee boredom in November 2014, he decided to give chess a try. Together with club mates from Schaakvereniging Doetinchem he started to pay regular visits to the reception centre in the Dutch town near the German border. “We were surprised how many Syrians know chess and play it quite well.”
Those who show an interest are also invited to the chess club. Offering tournaments makes little sense, as the refugees are usually just staying for a few weeks. Van der Mark encourages them to join one of the free chess sites on the internet in order to stay in contact with others who keep playing. He has also make some connections with chess clubs in the refugee’s new place so that they receive a welcome. Chess can provides a ready-made social network.
Van der Mark is unaware of other Dutch chess clubs that have followed the example of Doetinchem, “because we didn´t make a noise about this”, but the local media found out about the project and loved it. Here you can see a TV report (in Dutch)..
Only men and boys joined the chess sessions. As Van der Mark noted “They kept saying that women don´t have a place in war, and they pointed out that what we call queen is in Arabic a vezir – a minister”. Some of the Syrian children would move the pieces in a different way. They play a variant called “damen” (a word which means “draughts” in several European languages).
In Sweden, instilling an interest in chess fever has been found to improve the mood of formerly depressed and isolated youth. Ake Drott, a therapist and social worker specialises in unaccompanied young refugees at Steget Verdare (One Step Further), a non-for-profit organisation in Mölndal near Gothenburg. Two years ago he started using chess and has been passing on his lifelong enthusiasm for the game to the young people he is assisting. “Chess works tremendously well: they feel better, they get better at school, they get along better with others. Everything!” says Drott.
Last year Ake and his team leader, Pontus Teiler, participated in a graduate seminar on chess teaching at the University of Malmö. They documented and analyzed their experience which now comes as a basis for a presentation at our conference. Drott, Dengler and Van der Mark will all share their experience in our workshop Chess for Refugees and encourage others to establish projects elsewhere.