The role of sport, and football in particular, in helping our communities to become more integrated and cohesive has been powerfully illustrated by Amnesty International’s first ‘Football Welcomes’ initiative in the UK.
More than 20 clubs from across the Premier League, English Football League and the FA Women’s Super League, plus a number of grassroots and non-league teams, took part in the initiative which aimed to highlight the contribution of refugees to UK football.
Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke, Watford’s Valon Behrami and Stoke’s Saido Berahino – who were all refugees as children – were among the players who pledged their support. Behrami said: “Sport is one of the best solutions to integration. Football and sport in general can help you a lot.”
The initiative, on April 22 and 23, also marked the 80th anniversary of the arrival in the country of some of the first refugees to play professional football in the UK. They were child refugees from the Spanish Civil War, evacuated to the UK after the infamous bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937, who went on to play for Southampton, Coventry, Wolves, Brentford, Norwich, Colchester and Cambridge United.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said: “Refugees have made an important contribution to this much-loved game and to their communities throughout the years. We are delighted that so many football clubs are embracing this. This is the first year of Football Welcomes and we’d love it to become a key fixture in the football calendar for years to come.”
Here’s a selection of the clubs who have supported the first ‘Football Welcomes’ initiative.
AFC WIMBLEDON – Watch the video with centre-back Paul Robinson, who said: “There are some situations that people have had to suffer in their lives that are really tough. Football is such an inclusive game and it’s open to everyone. It will help the refugees to integrate into their local communities. It is a great initiative and it is brilliant that football is a part of it.” Read more >>
ARSENAL – the Arsenal Foundation supported the ‘Football Welcomes’ initiative by promoting its work with the ‘Freedom from Torture’ campaign. Read more here >>
BATH CITY – the National League South club invited refugees and asylum-seekers, including resettled Syrian children, to their game against Poole Town. Read the moving story of the children here >>
BLACKBURN ROVERS – Rovers’ Community Trust published this article about the ARC Project in Blackburn, which supports asylum-seekers and refugees and has a team in the local Social Inclusion Football League. Read more >>
BRENTFORD – to coincide with the Bees’ home match again west London rivals QPR, the clubs put on a match for refugee participants in their youth community programmes. They also provided free tickets to the match for the young people who made up a guard of honour as players ran onto the pitch. Luke Skelhorn, general manager of Brentford FC Community Sports Trust, said: “Some of our past and present participants, staff and volunteers held refugee status and have contributed to our success over the last 30 years.” Read more >>
CAMBRIDGE UNITED – the club celebrated Football Welcomes by inviting 15 refugees to their game against Exeter City. Read about the Gallego brothers who played for United in the 1940s and 50s. Read more >>
COLCHESTER UNITED – one of the Gallego brothers also played for the U’s, while another former player Lomana Tresor Lua Lua fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with his father when he was nine in the 1980s. The club supported ‘Football Welcomes’ as part of a wider Football in the Community Day for the game against Plymouth, and have also pledged to look at other ways to work closely with groups in the town supporting refugees. Read more >>
CRYSTAL PALACE – striker Christian Benteke was born in Zaire (now known as the Democratic of Republic of Congo) but aged just two, he was relocated by his parents to Liege, Belgium, due to political unrest in the African nation. He spoke to BBC Sport about his childhood. Watch the interview.
EVERTON – Everton in the Community has been delivering coaching sessions to asylum-seekers and refugees since 2015. In partnership with Asylum Link Merseyside and funded by Liverpool Council, over 100 individuals have benefitted from the weekly sessions and the project plays a key role in supporting their relocation to Liverpool and helps to facilitate integration and creating a safe haven for them. Read the story of former refugee Jacob Vieira, who had trials at the club and is being supported by EitC.
HUDDERSFIELD TOWN – the Yorkshire club supported the initiative at their match against Fulham. Striker Flo Bojaj, whose family fled Kosovo when he was just one year old, said: “I’m really happy and proud that the club is supporting Amnesty International’s ‘Football Welcomes’ campaign. Obviously my family arrived in this country in a similar manner to the people from Guernica 80 years ago and this country was so welcoming, both in general and particularly in football.” Read more >>
HULL CITY – the Premier League club organised a game for refugees participating in its community scheme before their home game against Watford, and offered them free tickets for the match. Watch this BBC Sport film on the club’s work with refugees.
LEICESTER CITY – the club’s Community Trust organised a match for refugees and asylum-seekers who participate in their outreach projects and will be holding educational workshops with others in the community about what it’s like to be a refugee and why people have to flee their homes. James Lowbridge, from the Trust, told the Guardian: “Football is a way of getting young people’s attention and then there are educational inputs from ourselves, youth workers and the local police. It’s one way of helping non-refugees to understand that refugees are not here to cause problems but because it’s a safe haven away from issues they face in their own countries. It’s worked really well and we’ve had no issues.”
NEWCASTLE UNITED – the Magpies welcomed 30 people from the West End Refugee Service (WERS) to their game against Preston North End as special guests. Sarah Smart, coordinator at WERS, told the club’s website: “Sport is a great way to bring people together, allowing people to form friendships around a common interest, therefore the donation of these tickets via Newcastle United Foundation is a wonderful gesture of welcome.” Read more >>
NOTTS COUNTY – County’s Football in the Community (FITC) programme, which runs weekly football sessions for refugees and asylum seekers, invited first-team players Alan Smith and Elliott Hewitt to visit the project. Smith, the former Manchester United, Leeds and Newcastle star, said: “It is a bit daunting and for these guys their confidence will grow and they’ll express themselves a lot more just by doing things like this. Hopefully we can help them develop as people, as well as footballers.” Read more >>
PRESTON NORTH END – the Championshop club organised a tour of Deepdale stadium for around 60 refugees and asylum-seekers living nearby. North End Manager Simon Grayson said: “Throughout football, refugees have played and continue to play a significant role in the beautiful game that we know and love today.”
QPR – the London club supported the initiative in their match against Brentford (see above). James McLynn, youth and communities officer at QPR in the Community Trust, said: “QPR recognises the stigma that can be attached to those with refugee status and deems it important to acknowledge the contribution that refugees make to this country past, present and future.” Read more >>
SOUTHAMPTON – the Saints provided free tickets to their home game against Hull to a number of refugees living locally. Furthermore, the club website told the fascinating story of two refugees who played for the club after fleeing the Spanish Civil War. Read more >>
STOKE CITY – striker Saido Berahino lost his father in the Civil War in Burundi and was forced to flee the country. He said: “I’m proud to support Amnesty International’s Football Welcomes initiative – it’s an issue that is so close to my heart. I’ve been given a second chance in England. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve been given and the chance to turn your life around is something that every refugee deserves.” Read more >>
WATFORD – midfielder Valon Behrami fled Kosovo because of rising ethnic violence which eventually saw his uncle and cousin killed. He said: “I see now the extreme situations in some places in the world. We should just be ready to help.” Watch his full interview with Amnesty International here >>
WOLVES – it is believed that one of the Spanish Civil War refugees, Emilio Aldecoa, became the Black Country club’s first overseas signing in 1943 after he was spotted playing for a local works team. Wolves Community Trust already works with refugees through their programmes in local schools. Read more >>
YORKSHIRE ST PAULI – the Leeds-based football project, which runs sessions for refugees and asylum-seekers through its Football for All scheme, arranged an 11-a-side friendly against St Augustine’s, a refugee team from Halifax, and dedicated the game to celebrating refugees’ involvement in football, past and present. Watch the video >>