Football Freedom Project: Ending confusion about "Migrants", mental health and our daily struggles.
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
The spirit of freedom, hope and opportunity embodied by football is a powerful tool for bringing people together around the world and, in Greater Manchester, we – people seeking asylum, refugees and British citizens - have co-created a football community social development programme with and for refugees and people seeking asylum.
Beyond sport and leisure, our programme promotes community, closeness, camaraderie and vital networks and connections. Living in the United Kingdom's Hostile Environment, which targets refugees and people seeking asylum, is a daily challenge for all of us. We are either witnessing or directly experiencing intentional intimidation from increasingly draconian asylum policies, coupled with public confusion about who is seeking asylum or a refugee. Those of us in our collective who are refugees or seeking asylum are people, just like the rest of us. We all have dreams and aspirations, and we all want a better life, including those of us who have run away from threats to our lives and well-being.
The Hostile Environment systematically perpetuates politically-driven narratives that are designed to degrade and dehumanise those of us who are seeking asylum and refugees. It seeks to frame us as migrants who are a burden to the "rest of society".
But who is a refugee?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 1951, Article 1 (A)(2)) describes a refugee as a person "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".
Who is a person seeking asylum?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines an asylum-seeker as "someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed". Whether we have resettled or received dispersal accommodation, we are working hard to become welcomed by our host communities.
Being some of us…
Many of us have experienced torture, sexual violence, political and civil unrest, "natural" disasters, "man" made disasters, violence, and the death of our loved ones. We lived in fear every hour of every day. To survive, it has been necessary to flee and, in hope, seek a future of peace. Increasingly, wherever we go, the perpetrators of Fortress Europe are attempting to demonise and denigrate us: freedom, hope, and opportunity seem almost impossible to find and grasp. And yes, like every other group in the world, there are more and less damaged people among us, from all different types of backgrounds and all parts of the population. To really grasp this reality, to stop it from becoming a stick to beat some people with, we must challenge the xenophobia and racist stereotyping that underpins the Hostile Environment.
Forces fused, action taken...
And there is hope! Here in Greater Manchester, Football for Humanity officially partnered with Sport England, Greater Sport, Manchester FA and RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research) to create a sports-based program that fosters an inclusive society that strengthens relationships among people and organisations.
Together from the beginning, we strategically planned toward our objectives which included social inclusion, belonging, identity formation, integration, and well-being while reducing the effects of psychological trauma. Now operational for over a year, the Football Freedom Project has defined common themes of belonging, mutually respectful identity, and social inclusion, creating integration while offering wider connections to communities that support individual and group mental wellness.
To ensure these objectives are met, the programme is delivered within a trauma-sensitive space. Defined by its inclusiveness and cultural competency, our space promotes a sense of belonging. In addition, an active approach is taken by leaders who have experienced the trauma of displacement themselves and know how to facilitate wider integration. Finally, the programme offers a multi-dimensional provision that connects people to essential services and support: inclusive activity and movement promote emotional and social well-being where people can process what has happened to them, and what is happening to them both during the games and then throughout the week while participants get on with the rest of their lives… before they play again the following week!
One major barrier nationwide: Transport costs
While the football community social development programme has grown in many different ways and has even caught media attention from the BBC and a major news circuit in Portugal, there continues to be one common barrier: getting around or transport. Those of us who are refugees and people seeking asylum do not have enough money to cover transport expenses that can get us to the programme venue. Without transportation money or assistance to enable us to be part of the group, we will lose many psychosocial and health benefits. More often than not, an asylum application may take years to be approved. There are even cases among us where people have been waiting 19 years with no right to work or earn.
Currently, people seeking asylum receive just £6 a day for living expenses that must cover food, clothing, hygiene products, transportation, and other essential items. Can anyone realistically exist on £6 a day – whether the cost of living/corporate greed crisis is here or not? Those of us who do not currently have an active asylum claim receive no state support whatsoever. This is why transportation assistance is a critical need for this programme.
Our stories, our voices:
Alimamy: A political activist in my home country of Sierra Leone, I was fighting for persons with disabilities (I live with a mobility disability) while advocating for human rights and the LGBTQ community. When I was detained, the attempts to dehumanise me and the experience of death threats led me to seek political asylum. I now have my refugee status, and I live in Manchester. I am a trained FA 'playmaker', Co-Chair of RAPAR's Leadership Team and a team leader for Football for Humanity's Football Freedom Project, where I help to run the Project each week. Here, at the Football Freedom Project, it really relieves our mental stress. We are like a family here. It's helping everyone to get fit physically but also helps with their mental health. It makes me happy; it relieves my anxiety and depression and makes me feel I am helping others while they help me.
Philomene: I came to the UK following political persecution in my home country, where my husband was killed for his political views. I played football as a child at school. When I go to play, it helps me with my physical and mental health. In a lockdown, I felt terrible, but since doing this, I feel younger and better. I look forward to playing football every week. I'd like to play more. It makes me happy. I feel a sense of belonging.
Rahwa: I am a refugee, a member of RAPAR's Leadership Team and a team leader for the Football Freedom Project. Honestly speaking, we can only sustain our programme if we can get continuous support from companies, organisations, and like-minded individuals who believe they can make a difference in the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum, especially now due to the increasing cost of living that is pushing many into poverty and destitution.
There are so many important stories among us refugees and people seeking asylum. We know that this programme is making a significant difference in our lives: we are hopeful and passionate people. The project leaders are developing strategies to find sustainable solutions to ensure programme continuity. There are solutions! It's a matter of a few good and committed people with creative ideas coming together and making it happen.
The time is now to bring humanity together, join forces and change the game in Greater Manchester for good! It can be done.
Let's do this together!
If you would like to help us find sustainable solutions, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this further.