Launched in 2017 by Hillsong Church UK’s Refugee Response team, the Football United project has been providing football sessions to young refugees and asylum seekers in London.
“For children and youth uprooted by war or persecution, sport is much more than a leisure activity. It’s an opportunity to be included and protected – a chance to heal, develop and grow. Sport can also be a positive catalyst for empowering refugee communities, helping to strengthen social cohesion and forge closer ties with host communities” (UNHCR, unhcr.org)
Every year, the United Kingdom sees between 3,000 to 4,000 unaccompanied minors seek asylum. These young people under the age of 18 have often travelled for months or years from various parts of the world, many have experienced some sort of trauma during their journey and when coming to the UK are facing a unique set of needs and challenges, including isolation, lack of language skills and mental health issues.
Football is an international language; do you know how to kick a ball – you’re basically in. It’s a sport that is played all around the globe and is a great tool to unite people from all kinds of backgrounds. Hillsong Church UK’s Refugee Response team recognised this, and Football United was launched in 2017. We facilitate drop-in sessions run by volunteer coaches from Hillsong UK and local partners such as Fulham Foundation FC.
These are football sessions where they can feel safe, included and work on their language and confidence levels. We currently run three sessions in London areas with high numbers of unaccompanied minors, being Croydon, Lewisham and Tottenham. Football United works with trusted referral partners such as the Refugee Council, Phoenix Community Care, Local Authorities and accommodation providers, and as an initiative we have provided a safe space for over 700 young refugees so far, and currently see a weekly attendance of 100 across the three sessions. Besides football sessions, the youth have the opportunity to join local tournaments and games as well.
Football United is a place where many young people have not only developed their football skills but also found friendships, progressed onto local teams and grown in confidence in facing life in the UK. They get a chance to build relationships with other refugees, asylum seekers, volunteers and coaches from various backgrounds, ethnicities, age groups, and religions. For Football United it is important to promote that every refugee or asylum seeker between the age of 14-19 years old is welcome as they are and there are not requirements of language, football skills or payments. The aim is to facilitate a safe space where these young refugees can engage in sports, access a network and meet other refugees and people from the local community where they have been placed.
Football, and sports in general has proven to positively impact mental health and wellbeing. By coming to the sessions, the youth have a chance to set aside the trauma, worries, post-traumatic stress disaster, depression and other conditions they might be dealing with, and just focus on being a young person and the game for a couple of hours. There is also the opportunity to strike up a conversation if that is needed as well. Football United aims to create a space where young refugees and asylum seekers find a place of belonging and a place to exercise for their health and wellbeing.
Starting afresh in a new country can be scary and with the lack of understanding of how the new society works, a young refugee can find themselves very vulnerable and further traumatised. Football United is not only a place where the young people can come to play football however; the programme aims to be a platform to help the young people with other support such as access to football kit, social support and referring them to the other organisations if needed, plus continue to build their skills and confidence.
When Football United launched in 2017, we found that nothing much was happening specifically for this group of young people. In recent years we have seen that, for instance, the FA has started initiatives focusing on refugees and asylum seekers. We would love to see more of local clubs and coaches, both in the UK and globally, having initiatives and funding focusing on reaching refugees and asylum seekers of different ages and genders. Furthermore, if there could be a global network that one could access, showing teams in different countries that are working with refugees and asylum seekers, this would be helpful when the persons move on to a different location. Also, a platform where resources around best practices, stories and advice for working with sports and diverse groups of refugees and asylum seekers, would be a great tool for grassroot initiatives like Football United.
Lastly, football is an international language that fosters relationships, belonging, integration, community, mental health, wellbeing and confidence. It’s a key tool anywhere on the refugee’s journey, being the country of destination or in a refugee camp.
“It’s been a year a few months since I moved in London. When I came I didn’t know how to communicate with people but in football is different. If you love football you can speak in football language. Moving to a different country its very difficult specially if you are 15 years old. When I came I didn’t have any friend or any plan what to do. The people from Refugee Council told my foster carer for the football programme. I start smiling again when I heard the name “football”. – Participant in Football United.
About the author: Linn Jakobsen is a Norwegian currently living in London, UK. As a granddaughter of a Hungarian refugee on her paternal side, refugees, asylum seekers and immigration are topics very close to her heart.