Football for development project wins regional UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award
In 2015, Rozma Ghafouri, then 24 years old, and a group of youth in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s southern city of Shiraz received a grant from UNHCR’s Youth Initiative Fund to start a social impact project to help at-risk children through sports. The Youth Initiative Fund’s objective was to support young people in refugee and host communities to design and implement projects that directly address social challenges they themselves have identified.
Some five years down the line, the project now supports some 400 children a year, many of them out-of-school girls, through inclusion in sports and social recreational activities, enrollment in literacy and numeracy courses and counselling with their families.
Sports as a way to engage with children at risk
Every day, Rozma and her team of volunteers go door to door in the neighbourhoods of Shiraz to talk to families that have children who, despite their very young age, have to work in often strenuous manual jobs to help their parents make ends meet. Rozma seeks permission for the children to come to sports practice, hoping that sports and other recreational activities can act as an entry point for her and her team to get to know the children and the difficulties they face, and be able to help them.
Through these organized sports activities, the project is able to provide mentoring and psychosocial support with the assistance of a qualified counsellor. They cover topics such as child protection, how to build trust, how to respect confidentiality within communities and ways in which community members could support each other.
“Sport is the best way I have found to help children in a vulnerable situation to open up. After every practice, I speak to them about everything and anything until they feel comfortable to talk to me about the issues they are facing at home,” says Rozma.
As the parents start seeing the positive change that sports activities can have on their children, they become more willing to let them go to school. While both boys and girls must often work to help their families, girls face the added challenge of cultural norms which view it as unnecessary for daughters to be educated. Some in the Afghan community are also pressured into child marriage. The project works with the Government of Iran and UNHCR to support the families and help the children to stop working, go back to school or enrol in a literacy programme.
“Thanks to the Youth Initiative, my daughter gets to have a childhood, to play, to socialize with other children, to dream… These are things I was never able to do,” says Nazi, one of the project’s beneficiaries who attends the sport sessions with her daughter.
Rozma could not be happier that football is gradually becoming more accepted in the Afghan community as a sport for girls.
“I dream of a world where Afghan girls and boys have the same opportunities to succeed, wherever they are in the world and no matter the obstacles on their path,” she says. “Sports can be a powerful tool in making this happen.”
UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award is a prestigious annual prize that honours those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to help forcibly displaced or stateless people. For her dedication to helping young Afghans in Iran, Rozma has been chosen as the regional winner for Asia.