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UNHCR striving for a sporting chance for urban refugees in China

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UNHCR striving for a sporting chance for urban refugees in China

15 July 2009 Also available in:

UNHCR in China is striving for opportunities on providing productive engagement for urban refugees in the country.

Strike, hit the ball. The tiny ball ran a smooth curve to the end of the playground. “Six!” Muhammad  roared, with a hearty laughter. Wearing in white like all players from two teams, Muhammad is a member of the refugee team – UN 11. Here, now, on World Refugee Day at the Beijing Dulwich International School sees the cricket match between the UN 11 and the Beijing Cricket Club (BCC) team.

Sport is a common language that requires no translation – it transcends all kinds of human differences, be it religion, ethnicity or political views. It is in that spirit that UNHCR in China explored a sporting chance through the BCC of organizing a cricket match between the refugees and the Club. Although playing for different teams, the refugees and club members were all in their clean whites and as they chatted, joked and played, it was impossible to tell them apart – just a scene what UNHCR promotes: refugees are ordinary people like you and me.

It was not only their clothing that made it hard to differentiate – some of the refugees played with as much agility, skill and fervor as the club members. This did not come as a surprise – some of the refugees were in fact ex-national players. This match was a fantastic opportunity for them to showcase their hard-earned skills which still shone, despite the lack of practice due to years of being displaced.

This is not only a festival for men. All refugee women, out of respect for the occasion, put on their finest apparel with bright colors and refined embroidery and cheerfully chattered around the open field, which complemented the whites of the men, and the lush green grass that was surrounding them. The women also brought some embroidery they made to display, and enjoyed the admiration from all guests.

It was the children, though, who arguably had the most fun of all. The opportunity to run about freely in a big wide open space with healthy green grass was a true luxury, and they seized it completely. They ran about all day, conjuring all kinds of chasing games, barely stopping to sip some water under the demands of their mothers. They were given little cricket bats of their own, and they invented their own game of pseudo cricket that involved rolling about golf balls with their mini bats. A little later in the day, when they finally got tired, they sat under the big red tents and drew pictures to their hearts content. They shared crayons and enquired after each other’s ambiguous drawings, like little children in a kindergarten class.

The happiness of refugees are particularly touching, as urban refugees in China does not have legal status in the absence of national refugee legislations, and therefore have no access to employment or public education. Lack of engagement both for adults and children made lives in China heavier, not only financially, but also psychologically.

“We are all aware of the importance of productive engagement for everyone, man, women and child. It takes some time to identify a durable solution for urban refugees, and idleness can be big cause of stress and pressure.” said Veerapong Vongvarotai, the Regional Representative of UNHCR in China, “Therefore we’ve been putting tremendous efforts in looking for education and volunteering opportunities for them, and we still hope more partners in China would be able to offer a hand to this small but extremely vulnerable group.”

Although UN 11 eventually lost to the Beijing Cricket Club, everyone went home a winner. The mothers held their children in their arms, their young, sleepy faces sun burnt but satisfied. The players shook hands heartily for a game well played. And UNHCR staff stayed behind to collect the drawings of the children that were scattered with little Chinese characters here and there, evidence of lessons well taught and learnt.



The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.