From the Homeless World Cup in Glasgow to the glitz of the Rio Olympics, refugee athletes show sport’s power to heal and unite
Before the civil war broke out, Khaled Saleh plied his trade between the posts as Darayya Soccer Club’s goalkeeper, playing in Syria’s second division. After the conflict began in earnest in 2011, he, like many young men, found himself with an impossible decision – stay, and risk being drafted into the army, or leave everything behind. In 2014, he left, escaping first to Turkey and then to Austria.
“I left Syria because I was told I had to go and fight in the army and I didn’t want to fight, I didn’t want to see blood,” Saleh says. “I just love peace.”
In a refugee camp in Vienna, he was spotted by workers for the charity Caritas, leading to an unusual international call-up. If the necessary visa papers come through on time, Saleh will play for Austria in the Homeless World Cup in Glasgow this July.
“I hope to continue as a footballer,” Saleh says, but I think it will be hard because I was not able to play football for three or four years. I would hope, in the next two or three months, to start seeing my skills and fitness come back.”
More than 65 million people are now displaced from their homes worldwide. Many of those people are traumatised and shorn of their identity, becoming statistics in a crisis that is reshaping politics and challenging social attitudes in the countries that host them. Against that backdrop, sport can be a surprisingly powerful tool for giving displaced people back their sense of self and their confidence, and for demonstrating their humanity in the face of growing hostility.
In public opinion they are the weakest part of society. With the Homeless World Cup they can show that they also have skills.
Ever since the Homeless World Cup began in 2003, the Austrian team has had a large number of refugee participants. Although mostly from Afghanistan in the early days, and as new conflicts – most notably the Syrian civil war – began, the composition has changed.
“Most of the refugees on our team come from Afghanistan,” says Thomas Jäger, the organiser for the Homeless World Cup in Austria. “Last year we had one guy from Nigeria with us, this year hopefully one guy from Syria [Saleh]. Two years ago there was a guy from Algeria. Many of them are coming as young and unattended refugees without any parents or so on. Many of them are now living in refugee houses in Vienna.”
Due to a combination of geography and history, Austria has born much of the brunt of Europe’s refugee crisis. In 2015, the country processed more than 90,000 applications for asylum from refugees. This year the number was capped to a significantly lower 37,500 people as public opinion began to turn against allowing increasing numbers of refugees into the country. At the end of May, Austria only narrowly avoided electing far-right politician Norbert Hofer – described by some as a neo-Nazi – as president.
The public regard them as the weakest link in society Jäger says. “They are not well accepted. people say: ‘they are not working, they are just taking our social money.’ With the Homeless World Cup they can show that also have skills. They might not speak the best German, but they can show they are good footballers and it gives them a lot of self-confidence.
“On their way to Austria – especially if they are unattended minors – they often travel alone. By being selected for the team, they become a member of that team and that is no longer the case. It helps them build relationships and that’s the most important thing, that’s the main impact they get. When they come home they say they feel acceptance.”
The Homeless World Cup runs every year. This, the organisers say, is because it is difficult for homeless people to plan more than a year in advance due to the tumultuous nature of their living conditions. Jäger says that last years event - which took place in Amsterdam – was a big year for the Austrian team, due to the increased attention to refugees in Europe at the time.
“Last year was very special for us because refugees were such a big topic in Europe at the time,” he says. “For our team it was something special. A lot of managers and coaches from other teams wanted to know about our experiences with working with refugees.”
For Mel Young, the founder and president of the Homeless World Cup, sport is an important medium with which to communicate problems around homelessness, as well as other humanitarian issues.
“If you can use that audience constructively, sport can actually done some things very well,” Young continues. “The Paralympics, for example, and the way they have used sport to tackle the issue of discrimination against disabilities has been very positive. The work UEFA has done to tackle racism in football has been very constructive. Sport is a very, very powerful tool if used correctly.”
For Saleh, the positive impact of participating in the Homeless World Cup comes down to a mix of having something to focus on, as well as being part of a team. For his new home nation of Austria, he expresses nothing but gratitude.
“They are good to refugees here – they give us a chance to be active in their country,” he says. “The competition will be very positive for everybody who plays in the Homeless World Cup, and we are all very happy to be playing for Austria.”
Once Glasgow’s Homeless World Cup is concluded, 10 refugees will have an opportunity to compete on an altogether bigger stage. In Rio this August, a team of refugee athletes, selected from an initial pool of 43, will compete in the Olympic games, under the Olympic flag – the result of a joint effort between the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
“It gives refugees a feeling of hope. Not only the participants but also the millions of young refugees across the world,” says Claude Marshall, a consultant at UNHCR.
The team is made up of two swimmers, Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini, both of whom are Syrian, alongside five South Sudanese – James Nyang Chiengjiek; Anjelina Nada Lohalith; Yiech Pur Biel; Rose Nathike Lokonyen and Paulo Amotun Lokoro – all of them runners. They are joined by Ethiopian marathon runner Yonas Kinde and, finally, Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika, two judoists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“It really doesn’t make a difference where they are from,” Marshall says. “As far as we are concerned they are all refugees and they all have a refugee story.”
The IOC is at pains to ensure that the Olympic experience for team ROA is the same as any other athletic team. Uniforms will be supplied by the Olympic Committee. The team will live, eat and sleep in the Olympic village with all the other athletes, and the team will also have its own welcome ceremony.
It gives refugees a feeling of hope. Not only the participants but also the millions of young refugees across the world
Announcing the formation of the team, IOC President Thomas Bach declared team ROA as “a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world”, that would “make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis”. He also said that the presence of a refugee team would serve as “a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society”.
The Olympics has previously hosted so-called independent athletes in a number of different guises. In 1992, a number of participants from the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia competed as independent athletes, due to United Nations sanctions that had been imposed on Yugoslavia at the time.
The IOC and UNHCR have worked together for the last 20 years to promote sport as a means to help refugees escape the trauma of their experiences. According to Marshall, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio were not specifically chosen as the specific launch of a refugee team, but he admits it wasn’t a complete accident either. “Bach took advantage of what was going on in the world to put an Olympic Refugee team together,” he says. “There was a desire to do it anyway.”
Marshall hopes that the refugee team will provide a counterpoint to the unendingly miserable flow of news from the frontlines of the crisis. Perhaps more importantly, he says, it will give inspiration to those in the camps or on the road.
“The fact that six of the 10 athletes were raised in refugee camps as children and into adulthood – they come out of crud, of misery – and made it to an Olympic level, which not bad in anybody’s terms. There is a great deal of hope that goes with this, and emulation. If they can make it, why not me? It gives refugees a hope they didn’t have before.”