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Global photo project shows power of football during displacement

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A player from Club Fulanita de Tal women’s football team in Madrid, Spain. © UNHCR/Deisy Yourley Vélez Torres

As the European football championships kick off, Goal Click Refugees campaign reveals how the sport promotes integration as seen through the eyes of forcibly displaced people.

By Matthew Saltmarsh

LONDON, UK - A series of personal photos and stories by refugees and others forced to flee is highlighting the power of football to foster inclusion and promote physical and mental wellbeing among displaced communities and their hosts.

At the start of a global season of sport that includes the European football championships and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the Goal Click Refugees campaign by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the social enterprise Goal Click reveals how sport can help marginalised people find friendship and purpose in their new homes.

With disposable cameras, participants capture the unfiltered realities of their football lives and communities, both on and off the pitch.

“It makes me feel free,” said Deisy, 36, a participant in Spain who now plays in a scheme run by the NGO CESAL in Madrid. “It fills me with pride to be able to continue playing soccer here in Spain.”

Before being forced to flee her home in Colombia she had been called up to the national squad, but had to drop out after a serious knee injury. Now she is back playing in a Madrid league for Club Fulanita de Tal.

“I have regained that dream that soccer gave me,” she said. “Football is important because it helps me disconnect from my personal problems, it unites me more every day with my teammates – and I know many people thanks to football.”

The series, now in its second year, has featured stories from settlements and urban locations including Jordan, Kenya, Malawi and Cameroon, as well as the UK and the US. For 2021, participants come from places as diverse as Australia, Uganda and Ukraine.

New stories will be released over the next month to coincide with the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 championship, from June 11 to July 11, including stories from countries participating in the tournament, and beyond.

In Ukraine, Sasha Fomichov is CEO and head coach at the League of Tolerance in Ivano-Frankivsk, a charity focused on social education through sport, democratic participation and entrepreneurship.

Originally a lawyer, educator and coach from Donetsk, Fomichov fled his home in the east of the country due to the conflict, ending up in Ivano-Frankivsk. He coaches kids from a variety of backgrounds, including the displaced, and photographed groups including underprivileged girls and boys attending a free football school supported by national champions FC Shakhtar Donetsk.

“Personally, I am also an IDP and ethnic Greek, and it is very good for my coaching to show integration and be a role model,” he said. “I see football as an excellent tool to create social cohesion and make a safe environment for self-expression.”

“We try to be as inclusive as we can and invite all the kids without any limits,” he added.

Fomichov, an ambassador for the UEFA #EqualGame campaign, also has a personal goal: to see 30 per cent female representation in grassroots football in the country. He noted that last season, there was only one female head coach in the Ukrainian Women’s Premier League.

“We can create a new, gender equal normality in sport and the whole of society for future generations,” he said.

On the other side of the world, Australia is also gearing up to celebrate the power of football for inclusion. Football Australia will host a Unity Football Festival on 26 June in Sydney as part of Refugee Week celebrations. UNHCR will participate with photos from Goal Click Refugees.

In Melbourne, Jonasi Eangano Singehebhuye, originally from Burundi, took a series of snaps for the project working with Football Victoria at the Victoria African Cup of Nations 2021 in early January.

“I intended to showcase the unity and progress brought by football at a grassroots and community level within Victoria,” said Singehebhuye, who has been named Coach of the Year by Football Victoria. “They also intended to show the contribution and positive engagement of the African diaspora.”

He has played for some high-level Croatian, Greek, Italian and Albanian teams in Victoria, which included Australians. “All in all, Aussies are great,” he said. “They can be very relaxed and inclusive, which is such a joy.”