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Refugee young people and social work students pushing more than just a board at the asylum seeker centre

Copyrights: Froukje Smits

Refugee young people and social work students pushing more than just a board at the asylum seeker centre

In the city of Utrecht, the U on Board project at an asylum seekers' centre is helping in breaking down barriers through skateboarding.

This article is a response to our call for articles on sport and refugees. You can find out more here.

In the Netherlands, 82% of young people aged 6 to 19 regularly engage in sports or physical activity. Dutch youth generally participate via sport clubs. One sizeable group that do not or are unable to participate in organised sports, are children and adolescents living in asylum-seeker centres.

Various practical obstacles prevent these youngsters from joining a club and participating in organised sports while waiting for a ruling on their possible refugee status in the Netherlands. Moreover, asylum seeker centres are not on the radar of most Dutch sports clubs, meaning that little to no sports and physical activities are organised for this target group. Research shows that 70% of refugee young people never or hardly ever able to participate in activities organised at their centres. This informed the decision to introduce the ‘U on Board’ project at an asylum seekers’ centre in Utrecht, in which we hope to get these youngsters on board and engage in sports – by inviting them to literally step on a skateboard or longboard. The twice-weekly workshops are headed by a project leader and supported by Social Work students.

We chose an urban action sport because it is relatively informal: it can be organised independently of an existing sports club or location. In addition, these sports connect to youth culture, and the boards and gear appeal to young people, encouraging them to join in. This category of sports is associated with an ideology of being free and having fun (rather than competing) and getting active together in the outdoors. Each session is intended to reach approximately 25 children and adolescents living at the asylum seekers’ centre. In many respects, this set-up creates a win-win situation.

For the young people at the asylum seekers’ centre, this project provides a positive channel for releasing energy and tension, allowing them to unwind for a moment and just focus on skateboarding or longboarding, without worrying about other things. For example:

“You can learn tricks together and stuff… and if you can’t do a trick yet, someone else can help you. And you can introduce yourselves at the same time: so it’s a way to make new friends here.” (Girl, 12-year-old)

“I want to learn all the sports you can do here in the Netherlands. I’m getting better and better, except for steering in bends – but I’ll get there!” (Girl, 14-year-old)

Social Work students get to know refugee young people and their everyday surroundings at the asylum centre. In many cases, the situation these youngsters are in makes quite an impression on the students, for example:

“Two teenaged girls were talking about how much they would miss each other. One of them explained to me that she would be moving to a different town tomorrow. They had been allocated housing. She was very happy about it. Her friend told me she had mixed feelings though. She was happy for her friend who had been granted a refugee status and was allowed to stay in the Netherlands. But she also felt sad: her best friend would be leaving." (Social Work student, 21-year-old)

In short, by using action sports as a means to promote participation, we have succeeded in setting up a fun and educational project that is pushing more than just a skate - or longboard. The participating children and adolescents living at the asylum seekers’ centre and Social Work students can all benefit from these activities on their path towards adulthood in an inclusive and tolerant society. The project shows that it can be worthwhile to use action sports in a creative and innovative programme that is supported by Social Work students, because it facilitates/pushes intercultural dialogue, learning and understanding. It can reduce prejudice and potentially negative community perceptions towards asylum seekers. Therefore, this approach fosters a powerful and safe learning environment that can benefit/push the integration and participation of young people living at an asylum seekers’ centre.

Froukje Smits works as a senior researcher within the Participation and Urban Development Research Group and as a lecturer at the Institute Social Work at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. Her research and education activities focus on the social impact of sports and physical activity. Smits is the initiator and project leader of the ‘U on Board’ programme.


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Froukje Smits


Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 18:30