News Stories, 26 January 2005
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Jan 26 (UNHCR) – The jerseys of these football players do not bear sponsors' logos, names or numbers. Instead they read: "Seeking peace together with UNHCR", a message linked to one of the UN refugee agency's goals in Argentina – to help refugees achieve integration.
Once a week, some 30 refugees gather at a football field in the Argentinean capital. They bring various playing styles and experience, as well as the desire to get to know each other and have a good time.
They arrived in Argentina at different times, fleeing conflict at home or persecution due to race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Some came alone, others with their wives and children. They are all struggling to move forward, little by little learning the customs and the language of this new country.
In 2004, UNHCR invited the refugees to form a football team under its sports programme for refugees, "The World Needs Players". The initiative aims to help them build new friendships, develop their self-esteem, and encourage teamwork, discipline and other values that could help them move beyond the difficult memories they carry with them.
Diego is Peruvian and has lived in Argentina for seven years. He recalls the first matches organised by UNHCR consultants Mario Pironi and José Ramón Ruiz. "I remember the first day we arrived, we were only a few. But we contacted more people and little by little the project took shape. It seemed interesting to us because despite the diversity and the different cultures, football is universal – everyone likes it. It was a common link to bring us all together, to get to know each other, until we achieved what we have today."
On the playing field, the refugees have the opportunity to play with Argentines and to develop new friendships with them. "If I had to point out a characteristic of the refugee team, it would be its athleticism, strength and the fun they have in the game," said Adrián, an Argentine who has played with the refugees.
The refugees recently made it to the finals of a championship organised by civil society group Volver a Empezar ("Starting Anew"), featuring 24 teams. They came in second, and also won the prize for fair play.
Felipe Matto, who was in charge of the tournament, noted the refugee team's good conduct during the championship, their positive interaction with the rest of the players and the joy they brought to the game.
Joseph, a Nigerian who came to Argentina two years ago, was named most valuable player of the tournament. Since he started playing on the team, Joseph has astonished his team mates with his football skills. Earlier, he had played for several months for the Argentine teams Platense and River de Mar del Plata. Today, he takes part in the UNHCR matches and dreams of having a bigger field and forming a professional team that would become famous in Argentina and perhaps even worldwide.
"I am very happy that we have gotten together and that we have such a good time. We are building a beautiful friendship and there are many good people here. I hope that God will help us to get a bigger field," he said. Joseph loves to study and in addition to his native language, he speaks some English, French and very quickly learnt Spanish, although he is not yet perfectly fluent.
His dream is shared by the team captain, a Colombian refugee who is the model of perfect attendance. He is excited about the new year with new projects and the common desire to form a bigger team. "It helps refugees to get to know each other. We are already a family. We are establishing more contacts and a real unity."
Mario Pironi, the team representative, coach and player, says, "The most gratifying part of the year was to be able to form a group with so much determination, sense of identity and mutual respect. The main traits of the team are strength and agility. I believe that some of the team members could make it to the professional level."
There are other plans for 2005, including the development of a refugee women's team, an idea proposed by the women themselves.
"This is only the beginning," said UNHCR Representative in Argentina Flor Rojas at a recent gathering organised by Volver a Empezar for the refugee players. "I hope that we will go forward, that women and children will join in and that we all will think together about what we can do for refugees."
By Cecilia Bertolini and Nazli Zaki