Finding refuge in the beautiful game

For a recent episode of the podcast A Way Home Together, host Ahmed Badr travelled to Utah, to see how football can be a great equaliser.

Badr spoke to 21-year-old Mohammed Abbas Abdi who lives in the state capital Salt Lake City —over 15,000 kilometres away from where he spent the bulk of his childhood. Originally from Somalia, Abdi was born in a refugee camp in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast. He lived there until he was 13, when his family was informed that they would be resettled in the United States.

Although his mother was overjoyed about the news, it took three months for the move to become official, and eight more months for Abdi to feel settled in his new home. To cope with all the changes in his life, he turned to something familiar and sacred from his time in Kenya: football.

“Life is like soccer,” Abdi said. “Just play it like you mean it and you will succeed.”

There are currently over 65 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people around the world, and 258 million international migrants. Forced displacement is an unacceptable yet inescapable reality; coupled with the highest ever numbers of people migrating, these two phenomena are leading to unprecedented demographic shifts in our societies. Unfortunately, they are also breeding resentment in some quarters.

Families that are forced out of their countries of origin for reasons beyond their control are not always received warmly in the places where they go to seek safety. In recent years, anti-immigrant sentiment has flared up in many countries across the world, at the social and political levels.

Whether it’s referred to as football or soccer, the sport also known as ‘the beautiful game’ is known for its power to unite. Fans from different countries can put their differences aside for 90 minutes of action and competition. But while Abdi’s viewof football as a metaphor for life is sharp, the harmony on the playing field and in stadiums doesn’t always translate to the world at large.

Ambassador William Lacy Swing, Director General of IOM, the UN Migration Agency, recently  penned an op-ed about the ways that social anxieties around refugees and migrants can translate to the playing field.

“Displays of racism and xenophobia, sadly, have not disappeared from sports stadia,” Amb. Swing wrote.

But his message was one of hope, as he explained that “[i]n a truly global economy, sports create a migrant meritocracy few other industries can match. Winning, after all, is not everything to a sports fan. It’s the only thing. So where you come from, what language you speak or what religion you were raised in have little impact on where you’re allowed to kit out. If you’re good enough, you’re welcomed to the team.”

Amb. Swing praised several organizations, including Kick It Out and Stand Up Speak Up, for the work they do to banish intolerance and racism from football in particular, while announcing a new IOM campaign under the TOGETHER banner that highlights the positive ways in which migration and sports are linked.

Abdi is part of one such initiative in Utah; he coaches the Somali Stars, a team consisting of young people who mostly grew up in refugee camps. Abdi told Badr, himself a refugee from Iraq, about his childhood brushes with the sport, using water bottles or cans as footballs when he was still in the Mombasa camp. Now he devotes hours every week to the young men who have followed a similar path to his.

“I just want to do something good with my life,” Abdi said. “Everyone wants to do something good they just don't know where to start. For me it was soccer. The kids will grow up and [help] people.”

The dedication has not gone unnoticed. Adam Miles, who runs the Refugee Soccer programme, is the team’s mentor; he works to raise funds for the team and support their practice sessions and competitions. Miles is moved by Abdi’s drive to teach his players and make them feel safe and accepted.

“The sacrifices that [Abdi] makes for these boys… it touches your heart,” Miles said. “It’s amazing how much he loves them and I think they love him in return.”

“The sacrifices that [Abdi] makes for these boys… It touches your heart,” Miles said. “It’s amazing how much he loves them and I think they love him in return.”

The players themselves are unequivocal about how playing for the Somali Stars has changed their lives and facilitated their integration. Despite the name, the team isn’t just made up of players with Somali heritage.

William Makumba, originally from Rwanda, experienced loneliness when he was first resettled; he appreciates the way football brings people together, and the way this team in particular helped him feel less isolated. Teammate Ahmed Musa, who came to the U.S, from Ethiopia, credits the Somali Stars for helping him overcome his shyness and improve his English, which he now speaks confidently. The team also taught him some valuable life lessons.

“[Football taught me] to never give up, always work hard and play [hard],” Musa explained.

For Miles, Abdi, and the young men who play for the team, football is one way of feeling more at home in a new place. It also provides several occasions to play with other Americans, make new friends and facilitate their integration into their new host communities.

The story of the Somali Stars reminds us that the ‘beautiful game’ can be a place of refuge, where the only colours that matter are the ones on the players’ jerseys.

The United Nations launched the TOGETHER initiative in 2016. The campaign aims to promote safety, dignity and respect for refugees and migrants and to counter xenophobia and discrimination. Recognizing the power of new media platforms, the TOGETHER campaign also seeks to use the digital space to promote tolerance and inclusion.

One such tool is A Way Home Together, which uses the informal and intimate medium of podcasting to tell personal stories of people on the move.

Click  here to listen to “Soccer and the Somali Stars” and other episodes of the A Way Home Together podcast.

Follow IOM on Twitter and Facebook for updates about the #solidaritythroughsport campaign.