Of all the things you think could bring a community together, including those who have fled their homes in war torn or catastrophic conditions, I wouldn’t say the first thing you consider to be this uniting force is football. Or maybe you would.
From the famous World War One football game on Christmas Day, to communities torn apart by strikes, deaths, or other demoralising and heartbreaking catastrophes; football brings communities together.
Amnesty International have picked up on this, and are now using the hugely popular and divisive sport to encourage the integration of refugees into communities and to give them hope of a better life.
They have created an initiative called ‘Football Welcomes’, about which they say:
Our Football Welcomes programme celebrates the contribution players with a refugee background make to the beautiful game, and the positive role football can play in bringing people together and creating more welcoming communities. Everyone wants to live in a place where they feel safe and welcome. For people fleeing conflict and persecution, football can play a hugely important role in helping to settle into a new country and culture, to make friends, learn the language and get to know the local area.
They bring together clubs across the UK every April to celebrate the contributions of players who come from a refugee background, to ‘The Beautiful Game‘, in the UK. Through training, matches and tournaments, they turn the lives of refugees around with positive participation in sport:
From the children fleeing the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s – who went on to become some of the first refugees to play professionally in the UK – to the likes of Granit Xhaka, Nadia Nadim and Victor Moses in recent years, refugee players have been making their mark on football for decades.
Amnesty International are keen to highlight these contributions and their historical relevance to try and show the world that there is a place for refugees in our country, and to promote inclusion and integration.
Many refugees have fled their home and have lost everything: their possessions, jobs, friends, even families. Inclusion is essential to feeling like they have somewhere they belong again, and if football is able to aid the process, I think this is a pretty admirable scheme.
As far as the history of the scheme itself, Amnesty International says:
Football Welcomes began in 2017 with 30 clubs participating in the weekend. In 2018 this doubled to 60, and in 2019 the number taking part almost tripled to a record-breaking 177, making it the biggest celebration of football and refugees the UK has ever seen. This included over half the Premier League, two-thirds of English Football League clubs and almost all of the Women’s National League teams.
This is now launching into more local areas with community projects to help refugees in the UK.
Case Study 1: The Sanctuary Strikers
In May 2019, the BBC reported on a team of refugees in Reading, created to help integrate refugees into the community and establish a support network. The Sanctuary Strikers is made up of players from Zimbabwe, Sudan and Somalia. Local players also form part of the team to support them with travel and equipment.
With more and more mainstream and big clubs taking on players from a refugee background, and participating in events like football welcomes, it is with optimism I say that one day football can be a fully inclusive sport for refugees and draw them into a caring local community, and hopefully with time, it could help stamp out the undercurrents of racism in football.
Case Study 2: Africa Academy Calcio
It isn’t just the UK making these amazing leaps in bringing refugees into football, Italy is also drawing communities together by encouraging participation in ‘The Beautiful Game‘. Africa Academy Calcio was founded in 2016 and is a recognised part of CONI and is linked to CSI.
It offers people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds a place to participate in sport if they are fleeing from countries where war and humanitarian crises have forced them away. The want to promote ‘the recovery of human dignity’ and ‘personal reconstruction’.
Wow. How incredible is it that such a mainstream sport like football, is becoming a lace in which people are able to find a new home and identity for themselves, and build up the life they had before atrocities took them away from who and where they were before. Girls and boys are encouraged to participate in this particular club and they are hosted by Sportiva Orlando Calcio, with volunteer coaches aiding them in their practice and development.
Help and support like this, without the distraction of tragedy and borders, and the encouragement of participation to rebuild their identity, stability and community, can only be seen as a step forward in the positive integration of refugees into European communities.