How refugees are driving Germany's cricket renaissance
Updated 5:18 AM ET, Sat September 2, 2017
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Berlin (CNN)Nooruddin Mujaddady tries not to think about the events that led him to flee Afghanistan.
The death threats against his family back home, the grueling months-long journey to Europe, and the anxiety of his new life in Germany are constant weights on his mind. When he can, Mujaddady prefers to focus on cricket.
Standing on Berlin's Maifeld sports ground during a recent finals day of the German Cricket Federation's nationwide Super Series, the 25-year-old told CNN that when he plays cricket he doesn't think of "anything else -- just cricket and sport".
Once banned by the Nazis, who wanted Germany to concentrate on athletics, cricket is enjoying a renaissance because of the country's high levels of immigration.
Some of the best cricketing talent was on display at the Maifeld, once the scene of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini's 1937 rally.
Like Mujaddady, many of those competing have come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, fleeing war, violence and political persecution.
Mujaddady arrived in Germany two years ago after traveling from Afghanistan, through Pakistan and on to Europe via car, bus and foot.
At first, Germany was a faceless stranger. But slowly Mujaddady says he's adapting to his new surroundings in Rheinsberg, a picturesque city in the northeast of the country.
Playing cricket has given him a new community, a group of friends and the opportunity to feel part of something again, he says.
"Here in Germany I'm like a child," Mujaddady told CNN.
"I am taking it slowly, step by step. Cricket has helped me to feel better about everything and allowed me to relax."
Escaping the past
An experienced cricket player in Afghanistan, Mujaddady was introduced to a local club by a social worker six months after his arrival in Germany.
His tale is shared by other migrants. Between 2015 and the end of July, 171,491 Afghan nationals have claimed asylum in Germany, according to government figures. A total of 26,644 people have successfully applied for asylum after fleeing Pakistan.
In the past two years, the number of people playing cricket in Germany on a regular basis has increased from 2,800 to 5,500.
There are now more than 300 clubs across the country -- up from 130 in 2015 -- and it's not just in cities like Berlin.
'We are playing cricket everywhere'
For Brian Mantle, chief executive of the German Cricket Federation, the landscape has completely changed since he arrived in Germany from England in 1996.
"It is really growing by the week. Just this week we had two or three inquiries from clubs up and down the country," he told CNN.
"...we are not just playing cricket in the big cities, we are playing cricket everywhere. Small towns are getting cricket teams. It used to be just in Berlin, Hamburg, Bonn, Cologne and places like that. Now it's really everywhere where cricket is being played."
While Mantle oversees the national team, he also takes a hands-on role when it comes to grassroots cricket.
He views the sport as the perfect tool to help those coming to terms with their new life to find others who are experiencing something similar.
At clubs across the country, he says friendships are being forged, stories are shared, problems are halved.
"The first level is to make these people feel comfortable here and to be happy," Mantle said.
"They are playing cricket against people from all over the world: There are Germans here, Indians, Pakistanis, English people, and it gives them the opportunity to just be a normal person.
"Out on the street they are maybe treated in a different way, but here they are just normal cricket players like everybody else. It helps them to be happy. This is the first step into integration."
The passion and enthusiasm are contagious. The German national side, which has benefited from the influx of new players, has made impressive strides.
Most recently, it won the European Region Division One title and will take part in the World Cricket League Division Five in Johannesburg, South Africa, starting next week.
The competition will pit Germany against teams from across the world such as Qatar, Ghana and Vanuatu, all developing cricketing nations.
But it is the sport's impact on new arrivals that has been attracting more attention.
'A better life'
Irshad Ahmad, a 30-year-old from Pakistan, is the captain of a local cricket club. He fled his home town of Gujrat under political persecution, seeking asylum in Germany.
"I had to decide quickly," Ahmad told CNN about his decision to leave Pakistan.
"I decided to come to Germany because... you can have a lot of opportunities, a better life and more security."
Arriving in October 2015, he settled in Bautzen, in the east of the country, where he has a voluntary job as a translator.
"When we play cricket here in Germany, it is a marvelous feeling. We can forget about the difficulties and problems which we suffered during our journeys," he said.
"'It is really a very nice experience when we are together with the guys and we play the game we love the most in our lives."
New friends, new experiences, and a feeling of belonging -- like Mujaddady, Ahmad is beginning to feel at home in Germany.
While he may return to Pakistan one day, there is no rush right now.
"It is all about your fate," he said. "It is my country now. I live here, I eat here, I breathe here, I drink here. This is also my country."