Football as a tool for inclusion
Football is a powerful tool in helping young refugees cope with the trauma of leaving their homes and starting again in a new country, where almost nothing is familiar. Except, perhaps, the beautiful game.
This was brought home to me in vivid colours at the last event I attended before the UK locked down in March; a refugee football training session at Fulham FC’s Craven Cottage, organised by Hammersmith & Fulham Council, the refugee charity Safe Passage and the Chelsea and Fulham foundations.
That evening was, for me personally, a highlight of the years of campaigning on behalf of refugee children. The refugee children in the care of H&F were able to walk on the hallowed turf of Fulham’s home ground, train with the floodlights and the music playing and meet a personal hero of mine, Gary Lineker, who came to support the event.
Gary Lineker has become a great advocate of child refugees and he of course understands the power of football. He told the audience that night that he had decided to speak out for refugee children after watching footage of “young children and families fleeing their country bombarded by missiles, facing dreadful harrowing journeys”. He also said he would continue to stand up for the rights of refugees, despite previous criticism; “Refugees are a humanitarian issue not a political one. We have to play our part. Every country in the world has to do their bit. And that includes us”.
Gary spoke very passionately about how football is a global language, how it creates team spirit and boosts self-esteem. Importantly, playing a game like football normalises the often harrowing experiences that child refugees have had to endure.
When traumatised refugee children finally reach safety here they just want to be able to live normal lives, have fun, integrate and build productive futures. Football is such an important tool – it helps kids grow their confidence and skills and helps them heal. At least while they are on the pitch they can forget the war, trauma and violence they endured to reach safety here in the UK and simply play.
Mike McSweeney, CEO from the Fulham FC Foundation explained how important football is for the young people his charity supports: “We know settling in a new country can be extremely difficult for a young refugee. Through providing a regular football activity, we can improve a young person’s physical and mental wellbeing, their social connections, support network and self-esteem.”
Craven Cottage made that session special for the refugee boys who participate in the Chelsea and Fulham Foundations’ refugee programmes. It may not be every week that they get to play on the pitch of a leading national club, but every week boys like those who came to Fulham that evening train in parks and on local pitches thanks to charities like the Fulham FC and Chelsea FC Foundations.
Europe and the Middle East are currently experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. I have visited the refugee camps in Calais and Greece and I’ve seen first-hand the appalling conditions refugees are surviving in, including the Moria camp which was recently destroyed by fire. On that visit I spoke to a young refugee child who was curious to know why we were there. We chatted for a while and I asked him what he needed most to make his time in the camp more bearable. “I just want a football”, he replied.
About the author
Lord Alfred Dubs is a Labour politician and leading refugee rights advocate. Formerly the MP for Battersea and director of the Refugee Council, Alf was appointed as a Labour life peer in 1994. In 2016, he sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 to offer unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain, having himself arrived in Britain in 1939 as a six-year-old refugee fleeing the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. Alf is now campaigning to ensure that the main legal routes for refugee children to reach the UK remain open after Brexit and to encourage the government to accept 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children over the next 10 years.