When a child ventures into a new country as a member of a family of refugees or asylum seekers, there is no shortage of obstacles to overcome – from the language barrier to the cultural differences to establishing brand new relationships.
Swiss organisation Raumfang has acknowledged that and has turned to a priceless tool in order to help integrate young migrants into the society they now call home: football. “With ‘Football Connects’ we offer weekly training sessions with professional coaches to migrants from all over the country,” project leader Damian Hegg explained. “We also offer them the chance to play in organised leagues and tournaments.”
“Football Connects” has been organising training sessions for nearly 250 children aged 12 to 18, coming from diverse countries such as Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. The activities are carried out in 12 locations, including the Home of FIFA in Zurich.
“Football is basically the first contact point that these kids have in the new country, and it’s also their common language,” Hegg described figuratively, explaining how football serves as a bridge between cultures to help the young migrants learn, among other things, actual languages. During their training session at the FIFA headquarters, several kids already spoke fluent German.
“Education is an essential part of the programme, because football teaches a lot of values that you carry for life as well. Regular practices help you set some structure in your life; then you have team spirit or the self-confidence that makes you feel like you belong. This all helps you when it comes, for example, to learn a language,” said Hegg.
Tuesday’s session included the presence of Swiss footballer and volunteer coach Stephanie Gobet, who split her time between refereeing the kickabout and encouraging two young girls to join in and be a part of the training session. “The vast majority of the migrants consists of boys, which is understandable if you think how many of these girls came from environments where it’s simply not normal to have a girl playing football,” Gobet explained as she cheered a couple of Eritrean girls for having overcome their timidity and having taken part in the training. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing them giving in and then leaving the pitch with a wide smile on their faces.”
After all, it is all about facilitating those smiles, on and off the pitch, no matter which barriers must be broken for that. “Football is a powerful tool to move boundaries,” Hegg said. “Most importantly, it connects people. This is what we do.”