Nations United football – quotes and stories

As part of the recent grant application to Sussex Community Foundation, SiC volunteer Lucia Withers collected some interviews and case studies with those involved in our successful and flourishing football project. They provide some touching insight into the impacts of the project on individuals’ lives…

The project was initiated by a young refugee called Jelani – now Team Captain – with support from other future team members.

Here’s an extract from their proposal in 2017:

We are a group of young men from many countries who have had to flee our homes. We are very pleased to be here in England, and appreciate all the care and support we’ve been given. We are now very keen to form our own football team to help us settle into our new lives here, and would like your help to enable us to do that.

“We want to play football because we love football, and have asked Sanctuary in Chichester to help us do something that we love. We also want to have some fun, whilst we learn English better, and get to meet more people. We have come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Somalia and Albania, but we are one as a group, doing our best to settle into our new home, and wanting to be proud to play in our united football team.

Two years later and Lucia asked Jelani how the football had developed:

He explained how important it has been for the boys, because many of them were quite isolated, staying in their homes and hostels and not getting out much or meeting people. Football has been a vehicle for getting them out and making friends.

It means I know a lot of people now. Everywhere I go I have friends.” This sense of integration took on a new dimension when Chichester University became involved in the project. According to Jelani, the involvement of the student coaches and the regular friendly games against university staff and students has enabled him to get to know a broader group of people – “we have become part of the university,” he explained.

Jelani has taken an active role in welcoming new players and supporting them to participate, including by acting as an interpreter during training sessions for those who don’t yet speak English. In acknowledgment of this role SiC pays Jelani a small weekly stipend. In turn, Jelani attributes this experience in helping him to get his first job in December 2018 as a Business Administration Apprentice for WSCC in which he acts as a liaison point for young refugee and asylum seekers, ensuring that they have access to information about the services to which they are entitled in a language they can understand and helping them to integrate into the community.

Jelani has been a central figure in NU since its inception and still manages to fit in the weekly training sessions and six-a-side match fixtures around his new job and his continuing studies in health and social care. He stressed his appreciation for the project and how hard Steve, Jon and other volunteers have worked for the team: “they always come, even when it’s raining they don’t complain. They have helped us make NU into a team.

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Rory Gogarty, host family of Asmerom, a young asylum seeker:

Asmerom was a fearful young man who had experienced torture and had found his way to the UK […] in very dangerous circumstances. He was clearly traumatised and spoke very little English. Apart from providing food and accommodation, we wondered how we might best help him recover and integrate him back into a more normal life.

SiC advised us of the Nations United football club […] When we discussed this with Asmerom, he was very keen to play football and to meet other refugees and we took him along to a practice at the university. I remember it well even though it was a dark raining evening. Importantly, Asmerom was met by friendly faces. There were also other young refugees who spoke his language and I could immediately see Asmerom relax and start to have fun.

Asmerom was keen to continue with the football so we lent him a bicycle and since November last year he has cycled in to the NU training and match sessions just about every Wednesday and Thursday. He loves going. Not only is it the love of football but from my observing Asmerom it is all about the fun and joy he gets in connecting with other young refugees who all have similar stories and so help and encourage one another. […] The friendship and support that Asmerom receives at NU from players and coaches has without doubt helped him to become more relaxed and confident. It has improved his English, provides him with good exercise and has brought both him and us a new set of friends.

In my view Nations United is a gem of an organisation and punches way above its weight in terms of refugee support and social care. It is run in a very reliable and efficient manner, the feedback on matches and the involvement of the university students is brilliant as this helps the young refugees communicate in English with people their own age but from a different culture. We are big fans.

In Asmerom’s words:

When summing up what Nations United meant to him, Asmerom told SiC volunteer Lucia, “NU stands for Love, Help and Hope.” He went on to explain that for him NU is about love because it’s a place where he can meet people and where he and other young refugee/asylum seekers can have fun and make friends. “I am very lucky to play for Nations United. I‘ve made many many friends […] We are friends now and we go places together.

Asmerom said that when he joined the team his English was not very good and he didn’t always understand what the coaches were saying, but now he can and he also speaks English with the other players. He is also really proud of how much his football has improved. “I loved to play football but before I didn’t really know how to play. It’s very complicated – it’s like maths. I’ve learnt a lot from the coaches and my skills are better.  If you play good you feel happy.” He wants NU to get better and better and has high ambitions for the team. “I can see us getting to the top – I think we can be like Manchester United one day!”

In recognition of his skills, Asmerom was recently voted ‘man of the match’ by his teammates and received an award. “I was so excited by that,” he said. But for Asmerom, NU is much more. He told me about the warm welcome that he gets when arrives and the way in which the players support and help each other. He repeated again, “NU means love, NU means help, NU means hope.

Interview with James Harris, recent graduate from Chichester University’s Football Coaching and Performance Degree Course and one of five volunteer student coaches for Nations United.

How and why did you first become involved with Nations United?

“I was actually looking for practical coaching experience so I volunteered immediately when Danny [Senior Lecturer and Football Coaching and Performance Programme Lead] invited volunteers – I didn’t know anything about it and had no idea what to expect beyond the fact that it would be working with refugees.”

How has the project developed over the 11 months you have been involved?

“At the start it was quite chaotic; there was no real consistency in who turned up and most of those who did spoke only Arabic. They really didn’t know what to expect from us and we didn’t know what to expect from them. We had to be really reactive and in some ways go back to basics to find things that they could do and enjoy.”

“There’s much more consistency now – there is a core of players who come regularly and you can see that there are stronger connections between them. Now there is a solid base it is easier to incorporate new players when they turn up. Recently two younger lads who had been brought along by their carers turned up. They didn’t know anyone but I made a point of using their names so that that they felt part of it and other players heard and used their names too. It’s not always easy, not all of the players speak the same language so whereas the Eritreans and Sudanese find it easy to communicate with each other, some of the lads from other countries can find it more difficult. You can see that the lads living with British families or carers find it easier than those living in hostels – they are more confident.”

What have you learnt from the project?

“It’s certainly helped my coaching skills. I am much more organised and have really learnt to plan ahead and adapt my style of coaching to suit the players. As a student of coaching we use very technical language that the players don’t necessarily understand so we have adapted our language and made it simpler. […] I also think it is really important to be prepared and to show that we take the project seriously so that players feel that they are part of something. So for example, before a match I lay out all the kit so that they can arrive and get changed in the way a professional team would – it is really important to make them feel as if they are part of a real club.” 

Have you learnt more about the situation of refugees/asylum seekers in the UK?

“I had always been kind of sympathetic to the situation of refugees and I knew something about the wars and other reasons that people to become refugees, but I wasn’t someone who was particularly educated in the details. Since being involved in NU and through talking to Jon and Steve [previous volunteer co-leads for the project] I have learnt a lot more about the issue. In fact, NU was the case study for my dissertation so I did a lot of research into the situation in the countries of origin of NU members, the trauma that they have been through and the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in this country.”

What do you think members of Nations United get from their participation?

“The language of football is a shared thing – it is something that the players care about and even if they are not very confident they will talk about that. When they arrive for training we always say “Hi” and ask them how they are doing and what they have been up to and we talk about football – I can see players learning to express themselves. Recently a player approached me to confide some difficulties he was having – I think he felt safe and felt he could speak to me and I was then able to get advice from Steve and Jon on what to do.”

“It is also a lot about helping rebuild identities – having fun but also instilling a discipline that can help them with other parts of their lives. This has been quite challenging and we have not always been certain what to do, but we have found that being quite strict about arriving on time, turning up for training on Thursday if they want to be in a team for the Wednesday league matches, listening when we are telling them something has made a difference. It was difficult for some of them in the beginning but they have reacted positively.”

“The Wednesday matches are also really important for them. To be honest I was a bit worried at the beginning because they are playing teams whose members are often quite a bit older and more experienced than them. But really good things have come out of it – not just when they win matches, but how they get over it when they lose and how they are relating to the other teams. We prep the teams in advance so they know who they are playing and we have encouraged our lads to introduce themselves at the start. We don’t want them to be thought of just as ‘the refugee team’ – we want their opponents to understand who they are – some of the teams are really lovely with them.”

Interview with Danny Potter, Senior Lecturer and Football Coaching and Performance Programme Lead, Institute of Sport, Chichester University

How and why did you first become involved with Nations United?

“I first heard about SiC when an e-mail landed in my in-box in early 2018 asking if the University would be interested in providing facilities for a SiC-supported football project with young refugees. I was immediately interested so I met with Jon Bowra and Steve Gough the two co-organisers of the project and was really inspired by what they were trying to do.  We just clicked – we had the same vision and shared the same ideas about how football can help people who have been through difficult experiences.

I firmly believe in equality and providing everyone with the opportunity and freedom to participate – participation is as important as success. I also believe in the importance of community and of community engagement in supporting the most vulnerable. Football is a universal language – on one level it is easy and on another it is highly complex – everyone can take part. This project was a way of putting into practice my beliefs and applying my expertise and experience as the lead for Chichester University on football coaching and delivery.”

Have you ever been involved in anything similar?

“Previously I ran a big project to support participation in football of homeless people and people in care so I was already familiar with working with vulnerable people. In many ways though, the members of Nations United are the most vulnerable people that I have worked with – they have faced incredible difficulties in their lives and even now their situations are very complex. This creates particular challenges that we have to be really alert to.”

How are you and Chichester University supporting Nations United?

“After an initial conversation with Steve and Jon we just hit the ground running. We have been able to offer a safe space for the members of Nations United to come together to train and play football – that includes access to the university’s AstroTurf and indoor facilities when it’s raining, but also a classroom where they can meet before the training and where we take registers, check they’re okay and the student coaches talk to them about what they are going to learn that day. It’s important to be able to offer this safe, non-threatening space for them.”

“But discussions quickly moved on from support with facilities to a whole range of other things. Right from the start we were able to offer expertise on delivering football. We also have a student body which is really interested and involved. This includes the student coaches who are all undergraduates studying to be professional football coaches and who have volunteered to deliver once-a-week training sessions as well as to support NU’s participation in competitive football matches. But the student involvement is much broader than that. So for example, we have had the involvement of students who are studying sports media and running sporting events. There’s a lot of interest on the research side too including in developing a better understanding of the benefits of this type of project – learnings that we can build on in the future and hopefully share with others. And of course NU is playing in the university’s six-aside league which takes place every Wednesday evening during term time and means they are meeting with and playing staff and students. It’s really snowballed – the more the students get involved the more others get interested and want to be involved too.”

“Absolute key to this is the support I have had from the University’s leadership. This is all extra-curricular work, but the Vice Chancellor has been behind it from start – this sort of engagement fits perfectly with how the University sees itself in the community and its core values.”

What has it meant to you personally to be involved in this project?

“It’s meant a lot to be involved. I feel really fortunate and have learnt an incredible amount about the lives of these young people and the issues that they are dealing with. It is great to be able to use my expertise to help. The only issue is for me is not having the time – I would like to do even more with them. I am trying to get round that by supporting our students to get involved so that they develop an understanding of the positive role that football can play in society.”

What do you think it means to the members of Nations United?

“It has been amazing watching the young people over the last year – they have really grown and there is more of a buzz. I think they feel that they are part of club and I can see that friendships have been built between them – they often used to come individually and not communicate with each other so much, but now they arrive in groups and chat and laugh. It is also great that we have players that have been here from the start who help welcome and support new members.”

“But it’s more than just the relationships between the players. At the start the coaches were very hesitant and not sure what was expected of them, but I’ve seen them becoming more empathetic and adapt their style of coaching so that it works for these players. They have really grown and it is good to see how the players relate to them and vice versa.  The players have also become part of our community of staff and students on the campus – you can see the mutual respect. Their integration into the life of the university has been a real high point for me – it is one of the reasons the project is so important.”

How do you see the project developing over the next year and what are the main challenges?

“The numbers of players who turn up to training and who want to play matches is growing steadily and we want to be able to support that growth. We want to strengthen the sense of being part of a club including through giving the young players more opportunities to play in competitive matches including local leagues. This is complicated both because of safeguarding but also there are particular legal issues for refugees, but we are talking to the FA about how to resolve this. We are also having discussions with SiC about how we can deliver sport for women and girls – not necessarily football but something that gives them the same opportunities.”

“Sustainability is probably our biggest challenge. SiC relies on volunteers and, as I said, my involvement is also over and above my professional role in the university. It is important for us to put in place structures to ensure that we can keep the project going in the long-run.”

Testimonial from Jon Bowra, Co-founder and previous member of Nations United’s co-ordinating group

It is a few days after Christmas 2017, and I check my emails. A friend has forwarded a message from a voluntary group [Sanctuary in Chichester] that supports refugees and asylum-seekers. They have recently had a number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children come to their drop-in sessions expressing an interest in football and were inviting anybody interested to engage with and support this group, possibly to accompany them to a match. I am a retired Social Worker, new to the area, a Chelsea supporter of over 50 years standing, and a regular non-league football watcher due to my three sons’ involvement. It appears that I am the only person to respond to this email!

A few days later I am at the drop-in session getting to know some of the young people who had expressed an interest. I also meet the vice-chair of the organisation [Steve Gough], and between us we decide there and then to do something. Steve and I write a project outline immediately, and so starts the journey.

It was January 2018 that myself and Steve found ourselves standing on a very windy and cold astro pitch hired from Chichester College, wondering who might turn up. As it happened, we were amazed at the turnout, and our limited coaching skills and arthritic knees were put to the test! Sanctuary were able to provide some financial input, which was soon stretched as increasing numbers of people turned up wanting to play, but did not possess astro boots. We went on crowded shopping trips to the local sports shop, and bought astros for over 30 players.

After lengthy discussions with the players we agreed upon the team name Nations United, and so we had an identity. We were soon featured in the local press, and amazingly a local county league team then came forward and offered us their kit from the previous season. So we had a name, some kit, players, and then we had a friendly against a local team of adults. Our team of fifteen to eighteen year olds won the game 7-2. Nations United was born!

Our costs soon started to increase alarmingly. Myself and Steve met with Danny Potter, Senior Lecturer in sport at the university’s Institute of Sport, and he fully bought into our initiative, and subsequently took a key active role in terms of engaging with Nations United’s planning, and the ongoing development of good practice, and visions for the future. As a result, a level of partnership was formed that enabled the project to have regular free access to a 3G pitch, consistent empowering and supportive input from student coaches completing their coaching degrees, as well as ongoing input of expertise from a range of university staff.

Additionally, because of this partnership, Nations United has been able to participate in six-a-side leagues run by the university on their campus, host their own tournaments, and create a sense of safety and continuity for the players coming to training sessions. The regularity of training and matches enables a sense of stability and trust to build up, whilst the skilled input of the student coaches in terms of support, guidance, and accompaniment, creates a beneficial environment that assists participants to recover from their traumas of travelling to, and settling in, the UK, and begin to start establishing their lives here.

We view the players not just as vulnerable victims, but as human beings with considerable capacity, varied talents, and potential. We are also mindful of the value of creating a welcoming non-judgemental, non-hierarchical, and non-comparative environment in terms of football ability. To this end we are particularly keen to promote their voice in all that the project does, and truly embody a sense of collaboration and partnership that recognises and respects their identity and abilities. This is not always a straightforward ambition, often because the players are not necessarily used to their views being valued and listened to, and also because of language difficulties. We have a range of languages spoken by players from over 14 different countries, and sometimes struggle to access appropriate translation resources.

Over the last year we have developed partnerships nationally with the F.A., and are members of their diversity and inclusion network, and with Amnesty International, being keen supporters of their Football Welcomes initiative, as well as looking at developmental possibilities with them. Locally we are fortunate to have established good links with the Sussex F.A., and are co-ordinating with them a refugee forum, and have also established links with the University of Brighton, Portsmouth F.C. , and the Russell Martin Foundation.

All this has been primarily achieved by unpaid volunteers. However we recognise that just because we are volunteers, we cannot be any less professional in our approach than our partner organisations, and have striven to develop good practice around our planning meetings, decision-making, record keeping, budgeting, and the development of an achievable set of strategies for future development. From the basis of this approach we were delighted that we have been able to establish a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Chichester, which clarifies the focus of our partnership work, and recognises the credibility and value of the work that Nations United does.

One area that we want to do better in is promoting the involvement of women and girls from a refugee and asylum-seeking background in playing football. We are working closely with the University and Amnesty International to see how this can be facilitated. We are also actively exploring how to encourage and support female student coaches from the university to have input into the current Nations United team.

Conclusion:

It has been widely recognised in many academic studies that involvement in football can be fundamentally a force for good in enhancing the wellbeing of both men and women, and boys and girls, from a refugee and asylum-seeking background. It is also recognised that football can contain less favourable elements, which Nations United is keen to not expose our players to. However when considering the potential positive impact of football involvement, it would appear to be a particularly relevant time in the midst of the current political and social climate of uncertainty, and indeed significant levels of harassment and hostility, to promote an initiative like Nations United, where a place for the presence of dignity, compassion and integrity, can be a consistent empowering baseline from which to build a healthy and happy life.

As facilitators of this project we would want to acknowledge that we have drawn much satisfaction from seeing the enabling effects of playing football releasing Nations United players into being able to express a sense of fun and enjoyment, build friendships, and have that brief moment of letting go of some of the challenges that they continually face. There is however much more work to be done, and many more issues to understand and engage with, in the hope that Nations United can continue to build on its empowering and facilitating role.

Nations United provides opportunities for refugees to play regular football and to become part of a community


Thank you to Jelani, Rory, A, James, Danny and Jon for these valuable contributions, and to Lucia for recording them.

If you’d like to get involved in the football project or developing activities for girls, please email Gemma Driver at sanctuaryinchichester@gmail.com.

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