On the eve of World Refugee Day, UNHCR celebrates its global partnership with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), and its ongoing productive cooperation with the Football Federation of Armenia. In May 2021, UNHCR and UEFA announced their new partnership aimed to support refugees’ access to sport in order to enhance social inclusion and integration in the host communities.
Also last year, the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) assumed cooperation with UNHCR Armenia for the development of a project proposal for submission to UEFA’s “Football and Refugees” grant scheme. As a result, the “Play Together for Integration” concept was developed, with UEFA selecting it for funding with an aim to promote integration of refugee, asylum-seeker and displaced children through football.
The project is now in full swing in six host regions in Armenia: Kotayk, Armavir, Ararat, Syunik, Vayots Dzor, and Gegharkunik. Currently, around 150 children – predominantly from families displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh – and local children are enrolled in grassroots football teams, enjoying their regular training sessions, tournaments and activities conducted on local sport pitches by community-based coaches carefully selected by the community and the FFA.
UNHCR salutes this project as it aims to unite the displaced and local children and their families around football, help them befriend each other and build stronger bonds in the host communities. By several joint field visits with the FFA, UNHCR had the nice opportunity to observe the project in progress and assess its impact. One of UNHCR’s joint visits with the FFA was to Martuni where the trainings were held in a local school’s sports hall where we watched the children play and talked with them and their coaches during the break.
“I’ve never skipped a training! One day in the winter, I was feeling unwell but hid it from my mom and came to the football pitch”, one of the displaced boys, Manuk, said to us. “I did not want to be away from my team and miss a football game even if only once”, he winked at us playfully.
Another boy, Vahe, was so eager to tell us about their coach. “We have a great coach, Mr. Kamo. He knows all the tricks on how best to play football and win.” His friend Aram echoed him: “Mr. Kamo is a real teacher – he always tells us about the importance of teamwork, gives confidence to rely on our strength and to never lose heart, and never be afraid of failure,” he said, before skillfully kicking the ball into the net.
When asked what football meant for the children, all the boys started to call out, over each other: “Football is life!”, or, “Vigilance”, “Henrikh Mkhitaryan”, “Patience,” many said. “Victory”, “Hard work”, “Teamwork”, “Solidarity,” they shouted. They really meant what they said – football had united and inspired them for joint ventures and common goals. “Football can help us overcome all the problems we have in life. Owing to football, we understand our strength, become more patriotic and learn to stand together with each other”, said Areg, a local boy from Martuni.
Two sisters, Angelina, 11, and Katarina, 10, were part of the team, too. They were playing out of breath, enthusiastically making sure they did not lag behind the boys. “Well done! You are playing with even more determination than the boys”, I came up to encourage them when they sat down for a little rest. “Oh, football is a gorgeous game. Once you are in, you feel safe and protected, you’ve got a whole team behind you”, Angelina exclaimed, “And the other way round: you can come to support your team and score a crucial goal!”, her younger sister Katarina added, who was so restless because she could not wait to play again.
“Football is one of the best games for teamplay. Indeed, it is a beloved and most popular sport that can unite the children, and help them live a healthy life and make friends,” the FFA Grassroots Manager, Lala Yeritsyan, said to the teams.
We were talking to the coach, Mr. Kamo Mosoyan, an experienced football trainer working in Martuni’s sport school for more than twenty-five years, and a footballer and goalkeeper at a local football club many years ago. “At the beginning, when the teams were just formed, the children were so shy, they were just sitting still and listening to me – I was telling them about football and the role it can play in their lives”, the coach told us. “I was a bit anxious at the beginning as it was my first experience of working with children affected by displacement, and who had left behind their homes and schools, their friends and schoolmates they went to school with or with whom they played football in the yard. I was weighing up my skills, thinking over some innovative methods and ways of how best to deal with the children who were affected by displacement,” he continued his story. “To my pleasant surprise, the warmup time was very short. In no time, the kids befriended me and got wired to playing football”, said the coach with delight.
It was a great day we spent with the team of young footballers. One could feel the ambience of solidarity and dedication among the local and displaced children and their coach. The children were all extremely enthusiastic, playing tirelessly, and at the same time, really enjoying themselves, and feeling proud from having us as fans fascinated by their game, and their teamwork that was created and grew thanks to football.
“No matter where in the world I travel for UNHCR, refugee camps, settlements, towns and cities, I see how football has the extraordinary ability to unite people around a common passion. Through our partnership with UEFA, we hope to use the power of football to connect displaced people and the communities that host them.” – UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
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UNHCR in Armenia – in the joint effort with the state and non-state partners – supports the families displaced from many countries to ensure their wellbeing and protection in Armenia. Parallel to humanitarian assistance, psycho-social, and legal support, UNHCR, jointly with its partners, implements various activities to ensure improved livelihood, women empowerment, and sound education for children and youth, leading to their inclusion and integration in Armenia. Thanks to enhanced donor support in 2020-2021, UNHCR also accomplished capacity-building and community support activities to promote a favourable environment and peaceful coexistence in the host communities. UNHCR Armenia also supports the UEFA-funded “Play Together for Integration” project for displaced and local children implemented by the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) in selected host communities in Armenia.
By Anahit Hayrapetyan, UNHCR Armenia