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Football: The Building Blocks for a More Stable Existence

A guest article by Pia Subramaniam,  a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their immigration status

For asylum seekers, life is a struggle. From the constant threat of persecution in one’s home country, to the dangerous journey that is undertaken in the pursuit of sanctuary, pain regrettably becomes the norm. Even once sanctuary has been reached, pre-migration experiences leave an unwanted legacy in the form of severe mental distress. Physical torture, the death of loved ones and war trauma are common pre-migration experiences for asylum seekers, and must be psychologically processed upon arrival in the host society. This means that not only are asylum seekers alone in an unfamiliar country, but weighed down by an immense emotional burden. A number of post-migration issues then present themselves, such as the complicated nature of the asylum process, the lack of suitable accommodation and the inability to work. Taking all of this into account, it becomes apparent why feelings of powerlessness are common within this community.

Football provides an antidote to this. It is a welcome source of familiarity in a life that is unfamiliar in so many ways. It is a means of connecting with others in the same situation, providing much-needed feelings of empathy and solidarity. The catharsis of the beautiful game is of tremendous value too. Being able to immerse oneself in the emotion of a football match- from every near miss to every perfectly-timed challenge- provides an outlet through which the stresses of day-to-day existence can be forgotten, even for just ninety minutes. As put by a Congolese asylum seeker, sport “breaks up the misery you feel at that particular time”. Fundamentally, football helps to foster a sense of belonging in asylum seekers, and adds routine and familiarity to lives that are often empty and insecure.

Severe Mental Distress

As touched upon, asylum seekers and refugees frequently suffer from severe mental distress. A multitude of different factors are responsible for this, from harrowing pre-migration experiences to the array of difficulties encountered upon arrival in the host country. Some of the most common mental disorders found among vulnerable asylum seekers are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, in addition to trauma and loss. According to psychiatric surveys, about 9% of adult refugees, and 11% of asylum children were diagnosed with PTSD, while 4% of refugees suffered from anxiety disorder and 5% from major depression.

One of the major causes of these mental health disorders were proven to be difficulties in social integration and the lack of a sense of “belonging”. In fact, differences in resident status greatly impacted mental health rates: 54% of asylum seekers and 41.4% of refugees were accounted to be diagnosed with PTSD most frequently, while anxiety and depression were mostly reported by asylum seekers, and illegal migrants of 47.6%.

The Work of Grassroots Initiatives

Not only are asylum seekers prevented from working, but they are expected to survive on the paltry asylum support rate of £37.75 per person per week. In a study that focused on asylum seekers’ experiences of poverty and destitution, it was found that many were unable to afford clothing that was ‘‘adequate to keep them warm, clean and dry’. With members of this vulnerable community struggling to feed both themselves and their families, spending money on football participation is, lamentably, out of the question. For this reason, charitable, grassroots initiatives have stepped up to the plate, removing funding barriers and creating an inclusive atmosphere. One such initiative is ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’ (FURD). FURD run informal training sessions aimed at asylum seekers, at which travel expenses, sporting equipment and a hot meal are provided.

Not only do such sessions provide a way to forge relationships with other players and lay the foundations for a more stable existence, but the support provided is of considerable importance. Not only are those who participate able to cultivate a sense of belonging, but the sessions also reduce the considerable financial burden on their shoulders and help them to make ends meet. As is the case in the majority of post-migration situations, asylum seekers struggle to forge a meaningful existence for themselves due to the hostile policies they encounter. In light of this, the services provided by initiatives such as FURD makes an immensely positive difference. In the words of a participant at one of the sessions, ‘it is very important that there are other people who understand our problems… just having some boots to play in… if I want to play somewhere else, with another group, I would not have had that and straight away you feel segregated’. The organisation run sessions five days a week at Sheffield United’s Academy, with up to 150 young people attending the Sunday afternoon coaching session. Further to this, FURD’s  comprises teams formed of refugees and asylum seekers and attracts increasing numbers of players. The teams that participate have been formed of players from Liberia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kosovo, Albania, Kurdistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

A Sense of Belonging

While holding British citizenship can provide some form of belonging, one can still feel estranged in the country. In fact, there are plenty of people who are classed as British citizens, but do not feel as though they fully belong within these borders. This is because integration is achieved through personal interactions, including activities that are undertaken with others. Football is a perfect example of this. It is a means of socializing and a common ground between people. It enables relationships between individuals from even the most contrasting of backgrounds to take root and grow. With this in mind, the role that football can play in aiding the social integration of asylum seekers cannot be overstated.

Without the work and efforts of organisations like FURD, the chances of vulnerable asylum seekers counteracting mental distress and breaking down even the most deep-rooted of barriers, through participation in football, would be scarce. Football is a universal language, the power of which can transcend even the most complex of problems. If the creation of opportunities for asylum seekers to participate in teams and sessions is all it takes to help foster a sense of belonging, governments should consider to providing grassroots initiatives with the resources needed to continue and build upon their good work. It makes a monumental difference to the lives of vulnerable asylum seekers, and it should be both applauded and encouraged

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