Are refugees becoming a fixture in English football?
At Bath City, refugees are part of the 'glue' that binds groups in a deprived area; the FA, and clubs like Notts County and Arsenal, are also embracing those forced to flee.
A training session with Notts County's 'Football in the Community' programme. The scheme provides refugees with free weekly football sessions.
Foutoun* jumps out of her seat, arms aloft, as Bath City score their third goal to the delight of the home fans at Twerton Park.
Although a recent arrival in the picturesque city of Bath, the 31-year-old refugee from the Syrian city of Idlib is now a dedicated Bath FC supporter. It’s her third home match, thanks to a club scheme that welcomes refugee families to the game for free, complete with complimentary pizzas afterwards.
Like several football clubs around the country, Bath FC has embraced refugees in the belief that football can be a social glue to bind existing communities with new arrivals. The Bath scheme grew out of a Football Welcomes Refugees initiative launched in April, 2017 by Amnesty International.
“They meet ordinary people, get to enjoy the game and be part of everyday life."
Designed to celebrate the contribution refugees have made to football since WW2, the initiative involved more than 20 clubs, including Leicester City, Everton and Southampton. Clubs offered free tickets to refugees living locally or put on tournaments for refugee participants.
Bath, a small community-owned semi-professional team in the Vanarama National League, now regularly welcomes Syrian families to home games. Ken Loach, the film director and a lifelong Bath fan, expressed his support for the club’s scheme for Syrian families.
“They (the families) meet ordinary people, get to enjoy the game and be part of everyday life. They get to feel included and to feel welcome at a family event. It’s doing good, but not in a self-conscious way, they are accepted without feeling marked out,” Loach told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Notts County’s Football in the Community programme runs a refugee project with the British Red Cross and Nottingham Refugee Forum. The scheme provides refugees with free weekly football sessions for fitness and to make them feel part of the local community and reduce social isolation. UNHCR also spent time with the club to see its support for refugees in action.
It is not only smaller clubs like Bath and Notts County that are supporting refugees. Premier League giants Arsenal, through its Arsenal Foundation, in 2015 raised funds by donating £1 from every ticket sold from a game to support Syrian refugees. In all, Arsenal has donated about £400,000 to Syrian children, including kit, clothes and footballing equipment.
Some refugees have attained their dream of playing professionally, becoming role models. Nadia Nadim, the Afghan-born forward joined Manchester City’s women’s team in January. At the age of 12, Nadim fled her native Afghanistan in a cargo truck, after her father was killed by the Taliban. She started playing football in a reception centre in Denmark, and her subsequent success in Denmark and the US has now brought her to Sky Blue FC. Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City escaped the Kosovo war before setting up a new home in Switzerland, which he now represents at international level.
The Football Association, meanwhile, has also set up two community groups to support refugees across its own networks and via its county football associations. It has a networking forum that moves around the country and an online group on which people can communicate and post news items and files. The FA also engages with professional football clubs and external organisations, which work to improve the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers.
For Bath, the arrival of 10 Syrian families and one Iraqi family since the start of 2016, has been uncharted territory. A UNESCO world heritage site, famed for its Roman baths and its ties to the novelist Jane Austen, the city had little experience in welcoming refugees - unlike its neighbour, Bristol.
“It has been a challenge, we don’t have the support system like Bristol’s,” said Sally Harris, community director at Bath FC, who works on refugee resettlement at Julian House, a regional charity, “but it helps we have so many volunteers, at least 200, including qualified teachers who provide one-to-one sessions at home.”
Harris sees Bath’s work with the Syrian refugees as part of the club’s wider goal of helping ease deprivation in the Twerton area. Although just a 10-minute drive from the city centre, where elegant 18th Georgian architecture is a magnet for tourists, Twerton has high levels of deprivation. Life expectancy here, for example, is nine years lower than in Bath’s upscale Landsdown neighbourhood.
“There’s huge scope for the club to do things, a flourishing club can provide jobs, work experience, apprenticeship opportunities,” said Harris. “What’s good for refugee resettlement also applies to people here in Twerton as well.”
Bath FC’s general manager, Carole Banwell, believes in football’s potential to bring the city together, refugees and all. “There is nothing like football as a social glue,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from football can give people a sense of common purpose.”
"football can give people a sense of common purpose.”
As the game winds down on a recent, chilly afternoon and the free pizza arrives for the four Syrian women and their children, the young ones are getting increasingly excited. It’s not just that Bath have won 4-0. They know that once the game is over, they will get their turn to kick around on the pitch.
Mohamed*, 9, in impeccable English, said: “I know I’m over-excited, I’m going to pretend I’m Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Soon enough Mohamed and about 10 refugee children are kicking the ball in front of a goalmouth under the floodlights.
“They’ve gone through terrible things, which they’ve had to overcome,” said Harris, “so it’s brilliant to see them all gallivanting like maniacs having fun.”
*Full names withheld for protection reasons
This story is part of a series exploring the amazing ways in which people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome.