When looking at the tragic scenes coming out of Aleppo, football may seem like a trivial topic. Families and communities have been ripped apart by war and conflict, not only in Syria, but in many other countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan. These nations are also the major point of departure for many refugees. Clearly, the primary foci of people fleeing war and terror are the safety of themselves and their family, followed by securing food and shelter. Yet as people become more settled, football becomes a vital tool for personal wellbeing and community empowerment.
It was this aspect that was explored in a recent British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award. Called ‘Refugees Welcome’, this project explored how football can support refugees globally. There were two parts to the project. The first part was a workshop with fans and grassroots organisations who engage refugees through football. The second part sought to engage the policymakers.
The first workshop took place in Paris shortly before the European Championships. Run in partnership with the fan network, Football Supporters Europe, a workshop was held with over thirty fans and grassroots refugee teams in June 2016. The purpose of the two-day workshop was to introduce different groups from around Europe and give them the opportunity to learn from each other and share best practise. Daniela Conti who helped established the refugee football team Liberi Nantes in Rome demonstrated that football provides an opportunity to break down barriers in a social space that is free from some of the burdens of everyday life. This can help the emotional and social wellbeing of refugees, as well as providing some physical activity.
The second event was hosted at the Amex Stadium, home of Brighton and Hove Albion. It was opened by Eric Murangwa, founder of Football for Hope, Peace and Unity. Eric was a refugee from the genocide in Rwanda and detailed how football literally saved his life. As a professional player who played for the Rwandan national team, Eric’s life was spared when gunmen realised who he was. Later, he was protected by members of his football club and a board member helped him escape. Eric’s powerful speech set the theme for the event and reiterated the unifying aspects of football.
The remainder of the event brought together a variety of speakers from European organisations, governing bodies and NGOs. Representatives from UEFA, the FA, Premier League and Brighton and Hove Albion all highlighted the important role that football can play for refugees. In particular, they highlighted how the governing bodies and clubs can provide support to coaching schemes and football in the community projects. Likewise, international NGOs, including Amnesty International and Terre Des Hommes, demonstrated how important football can be for fighting for the rights of refugees, both young and old.
The event also reiterated the complicated processes involved. John Dorber from the Council of Europe reiterated that respectful community co-existence and integration are two-way processes. Likewise, Hubert Rovers, the CEO of the European Football Development Network, argued that whilst football brings people together, it can also create other problems, such as racism. Fans, clubs, and governing bodies need to be aware that the refugee crisis may lead to an increase in discrimination.
The two events reinforced that addressing the refugee crisis requires a holistic approach, with different groups playing a part. Governments, councils and public bodies, including health services, education and housing, need to work together. Football can play a part in these and requires work from fans, clubs, governing bodies and various interested parties, like voluntary organisations and NGOs. To do this, there needs to be strong cooperative networks that share best practise and support each other. Many organisations identified partnerships as an important way of co-ordinating the best skills. Hopefully the event will plays its part in linking different people together and creating new networks.
This article was prepared by Dr Mark Doidge from the University of Brighton. The event ‘Refugees Welcome: How Football Can Support Refugees Globally’ was funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award. Further details of the event can be found in this video of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yD8aPssci5I&sns=em and https://www.brighton.ac.uk/cstl/research-projects/refugees-welcome.aspx