Welcome Through Football project helping refugees
Welcome Through Football project helping refugees
Through the Welcome Through Football project, Athens Comic Library and AEK FC have built inclusive opportunities for refugee children, in a bid to achieve inclusive and peaceful societies.
Athens Comics Library works in partnership with AEK FC on the European programme Welcome Through Football, which came together in 2019 in various countries in partnership with popular football clubs. This programme aims to recognise the value of sports, and football in particular, in social cohesion, skills development and nurturing professional opportunities for the participants.
ΑΕΚ FC is a Greek football club founded in 1924 as part of the historic club “Κonstantinoupolis Sports Union.” Greeks from Κonstantinoupolis were displaced to Athens in the 1920s, giving birth to the idea of the AEK FC. The ideology of the club was to bring together people from Κonstantinoupolis through sports activities, and to keep the ethos of their people alive through a sports club that would respect, celebrate, and maintain the legends and traditions of Greek refugees. With a strong refugee background, and a human-centred approach to training, AEK FC became a hub for young refugees, migrants and asylum seeking youth aged 7-11 who wanted to pursue their football dream, make friends and create a strong community.
The programme has taken place over three years and has three stages which are relevant to different age groups, with a common methodology and approach in order to:
● Offer to all participants an interesting and creative experience, which can have a positive long term impact in their lives
● Equip participants with skills and knowledge to help them develop mentally and professionally
● Build on their confidence, self-respect, mental health and nurture a sense of belonging
● Act as an accelerator for equality, equity, and social acceptance
Our aim was to enhance physical and mental wellbeing, overcome trauma and reconnect family bonds to support refugee and migrant families rebuilding their lives, communities and a strong network with the locality. Sports participation has many benefits, not only linked to physical fitness and mental wellbeing, but also accelerating a set of skills and positive outcomes, such as increased self-confidence, self-discipline, collaboration, teamwork, trust, honesty, self-respect, and respect for others.
At the same time, Athens Comics Library (ACL), having had a wealth of experience working with refugee, migrant and asylum seeking youth and their caregivers, and trained in trauma sensitive and identity informed design and implementation of educational programmes for and with refugee communities, was the perfect partner to implement Welcome through Football on the ground. ACL was assigned to reach out to participants and also co-curated the educational programme of the project in collaboration with AEK FC Academy Head of Development, Ilias Kiriakidis, and the team of coaches. A secret of our success was to appoint a member of the refugee community as the main sports facilitator, empowering both him and the participants; he soon became an important figure for the participating children inside and outside the field.
The preparation of the sessions was a co-creative process between ACL and AEK FC staff involved in the project. In the beginning, we all sat together discussing the objectives and the challenges of implementing such a project. We also discussed the methodology that we would use during the sessions, with inputs from the coaching team on the values of inclusive coaching. We also drew a stakeholder map with possible collaborations both from the field of sports and inclusive and creative education, as we wanted to involve other partners to the project.
Before we knew it, this football club had become something bigger and stronger than we expected. It was a safe space for children and their caregivers to come together, create a community of care, share their stories, have fun and make friendships. We received the support and welcome from many organisations in Greece such as the UNHCR Greece, ActionAid, and Shedia street magazine, who visited our sessions and invited us to play with their teams.
The fact that the young people involved came from different nationalities and cultures, plus the fact that it was a mixed team of boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 11, demanded that our team take a more realistic approach to bridging the gaps and emphasising similarities rather than differences. That was very soon to become our guiding value for the way we structured the sessions. Since our main facilitator was from the community, it helped in building trust and also made some of the participants feel safer and welcomed.
We also focussed on developing balanced and happy children, and for that we needed to take care of the happiness of their caregivers. Since the majority of the caregivers happened to be single mothers, we aim to focus on empowering them and giving them opportunities to explore and express themselves. We will collaborate with various partners to enable them to embark onto an extrovert, opportunity-seeking journey with us.
We didn’t only play football; we laughed, we cried, we went on road trips, we had parties, we cooked food — we became a family.
We strongly believe that together we can change not only the situation, but also the narrative around equal representation and participation in football, by providing inclusive opportunities for all, seeding the love for sports from the early years and co-creating new role models, inspiring and advocating for an equal game inside and outside the pitch field.
Dina Ntziora is a Community Engagement Expert at “Welcome through Football”. She has studied International and European Economics and Politics at Athens University of Economics and Business and holds an MSc in Development, Administration and Planning from University of Bristol, UK. She has previously worked for Bristol City Council, British Council, Athens Municipality and Athens Development Agency and is an active member of the European Placemaking Network. She is also a mentor for Women on Top in Athens.