Hull footballers welcome refugees to the city of culture

Yorkshire charity seeks to even the playing field for refugees and migrants.

"Football is an international language. No matter where you’re from people have an interest,” Ollie tells me, his calm voice belying his obvious enthusiasm for his subject. As Football Development Officer at Hull-based charity Tigers Trust, the broad appeal of football is something Ollie has witnessed first-hand.

For the past nine months he has headed-up Kicks International, an innovative project which aims to improve the health of refugees and asylum-seekers in the city by getting them involved in the “beautiful game”.

Football is an international language. No matter where you’re from people have an interest.

Many refugees can feel isolated in their new country, and with limited money can struggle to keep active in a world of expensive gyms and sports clubs. The aim of Kicks International is simple: to bring refugees and migrants together over a game of football, helping people make new friends and stay fit.

The project is going from strength to strength. Originally funded by NHS Hull as a twelve week programme and attracting around twelve players per session, Kicks now has around 30 people turning up to each of its two weekly sessions, including four or five new faces each week.  

Far from just being a place for a bit of kick-a-bout, Ollie and his team of staff and volunteers work with local providers of English language classes, schools, and other charities to make sure every player has the support they need to make the most of their new life in Hull. This includes teaming up with local community group The Goodwin Trust to help the refugee and migrant players access CV workshops and work experience placements.

Tigers Trust is also in the process of setting up in-house education and training workshops to help participants gain sports qualifications. “We pride ourselves in providing whatever they need – we are constantly consulting.”

We pride ourselves in providing whatever they need - we are constantly consulting.

The qualifications are sure to be an asset to the Kicks International team, many of whom see their future on the pitch. “I want to become a professional,” says Ray*, a 17 year old refugee who never misses a session.  Quej, a Congolese refugee, may be able to help him fulfil his potential. He spent twelve years in a refugee camp in Rwanda before starting his new life in Yorkshire, and started off as a volunteer with Tigers Trust. Now he’s a coach. Quej says his experience as a refugee helps players relate to him and build up a rapport.

The wider footballing community has been quick to recognise the positive impact of the project. The Kicks International players wear the strip of the Hull City Tigers – the Premier League football team with which Tigers Trust is affiliated – and in November last year the group was lucky enough to get a visit from Hull City’s team captain Michael Dawson.

“It really opens your eyes,” Dawson told BBC’s Match of the Day. “It’s incredible what they’ve achieved.” In recognition of these achievements, the club offered Kicks twenty free tickets for the Newcastle vs. Hull City cup-tie game in November - for many, it was the first time they had set foot in a Premier League stadium, or watched a professional match. All this, says Ollie, helps the Kicks International players feel connected to Hull. “We wanted them to play in the Hull City strips,” he explains, “because we wanted them to feel part of the town.”

Thanks to funding from UEFA – football’s European body – the once short-term project is set to continue through 2017, and the Kicks team are focusing their energy on ensuring as many people as possible are able to access its benefits. Plans include starting women’s-only sessions and expanding to other sports.

We wanted them to play in the Hull City strips because we wanted them to feel part of the town.

One thing that won’t change is the spirit of welcome which underlines the project. “We can enjoy football together,” says Ray. “These guys are my friends.”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

To find out more about Tigers Trust's work visit their website.

This story is part of a series exploring the incredible ways people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome