An endeavouring few in Sydney’s South-West are bringing football to the huddled masses, giving hope and familiarity to refugees new to our shores.
Of course, refugees need a safe place to live, a job and education. But their children also need hope, fun and dreams they can believe in. That is where Football United comes in. Building a future, one goal at a time.
You can see its story in its head coach: Abu Abraham Ajok. Born in 1980 in Sudan, he was 7 years old when the war broke out. He walked, for four months, to Ethiopia, with little food and always at risk of being killed. He lost his parents along the way and doesn’t know what happened to them. In 1991, when he was 11, the war spread to Ethiopia and he had to leave again. This time the walk lasted for seven months and took him to Kenya, where he spent seven years in a refugee camp before being allowed into Australia. As the head coach of Football United, he understands the backgrounds of his players; girls and boys who also came here as refugees. He knows what they went through: lack of food and clean drinking water, war, losing your parents, no security, no education. But he can also attest to the power of football (the real football, the one that Australia calls soccer) to heal rifts, grow resilience and bring people together. Football turns people from victims into dreamers. Active participants in their lives, not powerless bystanders to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The first priority of a refugee family is not football, of course, but survival. They are unsure of where they are, need to learn the language, get a job, a place to stay. But they also need a network, friends, to be among faces that look like theirs. That is what Football United offers their children and teenagers.
At the end of the 1970s, Anne Bunde-Birouste was an American volunteering for the Peace Corps in Africa, working in primary health care. After she met and married a Frenchman and moved to Paris, she contributed to French programs aimed at HIV prevention. But she wanted to do more; to change the world, in fact – something she says she puts in inverted comma’s, but nevertheless feels very deeply. She was looking for something that would unite people, and in 1998 she witnessed something that could. The football World Cup had come to France and after the French won the tournament, Anne and her eldest son were among the million people celebrating on the Champs-Élysées. Black and white, Muslim and Christian, men and women, all came together to party as one people. It made Anne think. In 2002, she and her family migrated to Australia, where she started work at UNSW, investigating how to bring health care to fragile communities, refugees and post-conflict societies. She visited refugee camps, and then met the people once they had arrived in Australia. She felt she needed to do something. Something that would not only give these new Australians a place to belong to, but also empower them. Something that would cross cultural boundaries, build peace, be a sanctuary. In 2006, she set up Football United.
The program runs in 15 schools, community centres and Intensive English Centres, mostly in South-West Sydney. Assmaah Helal is Football United’s community coordinator. Although Assmaah was born in Australia, her parents came here from Egypt 35 years ago, so she knows how difficult adjusting to a new culture, society and language can be. Her husband’s family came here as refugees from Afghanistan, so she understands a little, she says, of what goes on in the minds of her charges. The first priority of a refugee family is not football, of course, but survival. They are unsure of where they are, need to learn the language, get a job, a place to stay. But they also need a network, friends, to be among faces that look like theirs. That is what Football United offers their children and teenagers. They play football, but while they do that, they get to meet other people, from other places. Syrians meet Iraqis, Kenyans, Sudanese, Jordanians, Liberians, Bosnians, Serbians, Afghani’s, Nepalese, people from El Salvador, Iran, Togo, Cameroon. Most of them have grown up in refugee camps, all of them have seen violence, war, hunger. Now they are in the same boat again. They need to learn the language, forge a new community, get used to schools, the local culture. Football, Assmaah says, is a great leveler. Suddenly language isn’t an issue, nor is your background, your faith or where you come from. And it is not just about the game. People learn leadership skills, to work together, and self-confidence. Football is universal, cost effective, and a great inspiration.
Suddenly language isn’t an issue, nor is your faith or where you come from. And it is not just about the game. People learn leadership skills, to work together, and self-confidence. Football is universal, cost effective, and a great inspiration.
Since Football United started in 2006, more than 6,000 refugee children have gone through the program. And the idea is spreading, with a Football United “annexe” in Myanmar and one in Indonesia. In 2010, a team from Football United, half girls, half boys, went to South Africa, to represent Australia at the “Football for Hope” tournament, which FIFA runs parallel to the football World Cup. Thirty-three countries competed and Football United made it to the quarter-finals. In the lead-up to Johannesburg, the team got to meet the Socceroos and the Matildas, and beat a team of politicians at Parliament House. The long documentary that was made about their trip, Passport to Hope, won that year’s Australian National Human Rights Award. Anne herself became a 2010 State Finalist for Australian of the Year and in 2012 the program itself won an Australian Parliamentary Community Sports Award. Of course, Football United went to Rio de Janeiro in 2014 as well, again playing for their adopted country.
Last year, Australia accepted a little over 17,000 refugees. Given the fact that there were 65 million people fleeing their homes that year, our intake is negligible. The way we treat a lot of them, especially the Muslim contingent, often leaves much to be desired. Explaining Pauline Hanson and other embarrassing phenomena to newcomers can be an awkward experience. Football United seems like the ideal antidote to this. So if you want to volunteer, please do. Show them what is possible in this country. Show them that Anne was right in thinking that football can change the world. One goal at a time.