The European week of sports celebrates its 5th edition this year; and 2019 brings a success story – after a long struggle with documentation, the first refugee in Greece got the official authorisation to play professional football. However, many of the 30,000 young refugees are experiencing disconnection from loved ones and have been exposed to traumatic experiences. They struggle to access to services such as healthcare and education. Continuing inactivity and lack of purpose leads to a deterioration of their well-being and social exclusion. Terre des hommes (Tdh) uses the power of sports to turn vulnerability into strength by providing a safe space.
“When given meaningful opportunities to participate, young people have an incredible ability to use their energy and creativity to initiate positive change in their lives and their communities,” explains Maria Bray, Tdh child protection expert. In Thessaloniki, a main port in Greece where refugees from Africa and Asia live, Tdh is conducting a football project which reinforces the social inclusion and emotional well-being of young refugees. Through the activities, they can meet friends and acquire life and football skills. Tdh also identifies the most vulnerable to equip them with knowledge on their rights and the available services that they can access; if needed, we refer them to protection, health or mental health services in parallel to the football activity.
A safe environment to play
Research shows that experiential learning through sports increases self-confidence, trust, as well as the capacity to take responsibility for one’s life. Sports can be a great entertainment and psychosocial support tool for refugee children and youths, but it can also turn to a detrimental experience if no safeguarding policies are put in place. Maria Bray says: “Our priority is that sport must be safe for children. Despite the well-recognised benefits of sport, there are risks related to sport practice which have long lasting impact on children and young athletes. For this purpose, Tdh keeps children safe in sport settings by creating a positive, safe environment for practicing sports.”
We provide training to the football coaches in child safeguarding. We teach them how to use their language and communication style, how to promote equality and equity, how to identify behavioural indicators for potential protection concerns and how to improve the relations between the young participants. Through this, we can prevent and respond to adversity, conflict between young people, psychological problems and burn-out.
Applying football skills to real life
Coaches engage participants in collaboration, communication, emotional management, creative thinking and responsibility through football while relating these skills to real life situations. By having a safe space where they can express themselves, youth can bring change to their lives and support each other against potential risks. “Football allows me to get my mind off my situation and the coach supports us with everything; the football sessions help me to go on until I find a solution”, states 19-year-old Amir*, who played football professionally before having to flee war in his home country Iraq. Eventually, the team becomes their support system and the participants solidify their bonds through practice and reflections on how football applies to life. He also participated in our ‘Football for all’ event, where 24 different nationalities get together. Amir adds: “There is so much diversity in nationalities that you feel alive again, you feel that there is still hope.”
*Name changed for protection reason