As the UK welcomes Ukrainian refugees, in Greater Manchester a new sports project is helping refugees and asylum seekers already settled in the region to improve their physical and mental health as well as bring a sense of normality and community to their difficult lives.
The Football Freedom Project is bringing up to one hundred refugees living across Greater Manchester together every week to play football.
The sessions in Ardwick are attended by mainly women but also men and children from African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. The project has been co-created by local charities Football for Humanity and Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research (RAPAR). GreaterSport have helped to fund the sessions, through Sport England’s ‘Together fund’.
Many of the adult refugees have struggled with their physical and mental health including children. Playing football provides a safe space where they can socially connect and integrate, creating a sense of belonging and healing. Some of the refugees are living in hotels and for them, particularly the children, the chance to run around in space is very much welcomed.
Alimamy Bangura from Sierra Leone
Alimamy was a political activist in his home country of Sierra Leone, with a focus on disability, LGBTQ+ and human rights. He himself suffers from a mobility disability. He was detained and held in a dehumanising cell for days for his political views and received death threats, and as a result, he came to the UK and sought political asylum. He now has refugee status and lives in Manchester. As a trained FA 'playmaker', Alimamy helps run the weekly sessions. He says:
"It relieves our mental stress. We are like a family. It's helping everyone get fit physically but also helps with their mental health. It makes me happy, relieves my anxiety and depression, makes me feel I am helping others, and they help me."
Philomene Mujinga from The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Philomene came to the UK following political persecution in her home country where her husband was killed for his political views. She played football as a child at school. She says:
“When I go to play, it helps me with my physical health and my mental health. In lockdown, I was feeling bad, but since doing this, I feel younger. I look forward to playing football. I’d like to play more. It makes me happy."
Click here for more information on the Together fund.
Prior to the training, many non-medical/community-facing staff didn't feel confident in discussing movement and physical activity within their work.
Across England, sports clubs and organisations are being supported by a new network of Sport Welfare Officers. They have been recruited by Active Partnerships and funded by Sport England through an investment of National Lottery money.