8 Soccer Teams That Are Championing Aid to Refugees
Around the world, the “Beautiful Game” has fostered connections between soccer clubs and refugees.
In refugee camps around the world, boys and girls — exiled from their homes, cut off from their schools, even separated from their families — still support their favorite soccer clubs and players.
In Jordan, one Syrian refugee sported a blue-and-white striped Lionel Messi jersey in his camp. In Bangladesh, a Rohingya teenager wore a yellow Borussia Dortmund jersey as he blasted a ball through torrential rain down a makeshift soccer field. In Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, a Sudanese boy in an Atlético Madrid shirt stretched with his teammates on a dusty field.
For the past few years, as families have fled violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and other conflict zones, some of the game’s most popular teams and superstars have stepped up to help the fans who have loyally supported them.
These eight clubs have donated money, provided social services, and connected with displaced people for whom soccer is a common passion.
1/ Dalkurd FF
Dalkurd FF, a team based in Borlänge, Sweden, has recently emerged as a triumphant underdog. They’ve only been around for 13 years, yet they’ve consistently climbed through the tiers of Swedish soccer. Now, with only a handful of games left, they’re on the brink of earning promotion to the first division.
But what makes Dalkurd more remarkable is that they’re more than just a soccer team.
Founded by nine Kurdish migrants, including many who continue to play an active role in the team, Dalkurd is a source of hope and pride for Kurds around the world, many of whom were forced from their homes by conflict.
“Before coming here we didn’t know the feeling of a night’s sleep without fear,” Dalkurd co-founder and chairman Ramazan Kizil told The Guardian. “You could be arrested, shot, or tortured at any given minute. We thought: what can we, as Kurds, human beings, and parents do for the society that has given us so incredibly much?”
The club, has become a sort of national team for the stateless Kurds.
Club captain Peshraw Azizi, who moved to Sweden from Kurdistan at 12, has often visited refugee camps to perform aid work and run soccer programs for people who escaped war in Iraq and Syria.
2/ FC St. Pauli
Don’t let their dark skull and crossbones imagery fool you. Hamburg, Germany’s St. Pauli FC is actually known for its tolerant attitude, diverse supporters, and humanitarian commitment
St. Pauli’s supporters abroad have also stepped up their direct support for refugees. In Yorkshire, England, the local St. Pauli’s fan club established the Football for All program after spending time with refugees and migrants at a local Leeds charity. The supporters’ club pays for field time and purchases kits, boots, and shinguards for more than 160 participants.
The club also sponsors FC Lampedusa, a Hamburg-based team comprised of North African refugees who were stuck at Italy’s Lampedusa Island refugee camp before being resettled in Germany.
“FC Lampedusa Hamburg wants to create awareness and draw attention to the evils of European refugee policy and the situation of refugees in Hamburg, in Germany, and in the wider European Community,” the club’s website states.
3/ Olympiacos FC
At the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, nearly one million displaced people came to Greece after escaping violence in the Middle East. Thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan set up nylon tents in parking lots and shipping terminals at transportation hubs, like the port Piraeus in Athens.
In response to the humanitarian crisis, Greek champions Olympiacos launched a food program providing 500,000 meals and 100,000 articles of clothing to refugees stuck at the port of Piraeus.The club also supplied several thousand beanie hats, jackets and socks.
"Everyday thousands of people in many parts of the world run away from their homes in their effort to save themselves and their families from war and hunger,” former player Christian Karembeu told Sky Sports. "Many of them have arrived in Greece and are currently stranded in many parts of the country. Olympiacos has, yet again, proven to be a club that is in the front lines whenever the situation arises.
4/ Barnsley FC
After escaping violence in his native Sudan, Jaber Abdullah began an arduous journey that brought him to Barnsley, a town in England. Abdullah first flew into Russia because the sea route from Libya to Italy frightened him. Next, he paid smugglers to transport him to Ukraine. He continued west until he reached the dense refugee camp at Calais, France. From there, he hid inside the back of a truck to cross the English Channel.
Abdullah didn’t rest when he arrived in Barnsley. Instead, he founded a team called the Tigers which counts 50 refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Iran on its roster.
When Barnsley FC — a club in England’s Championship division, the second tier of English professional football — found out about the Tigers, they donated uniforms, offered their own training ground for the Tigers’ matches, and invited the refugee team to a game.
“It was the first activity any of us had done since we arrived in the UK because we could not afford to go anywhere,” Abdullah told The Guardian.
Through its charity, Reds in the Community, Barnsley FC also provided a football training program for refugees like Abdullah throughout the summer.
5/ Östersunds FK
The conflict in Darfur forced many of Abdullah’s fellow Sudanese refugees to scattered around the globe. But in 2014, the top displaced soccer players reconvened thousands of miles away from home in Östersund, Sweden to participate in the annual Refugee World Cup — a tournament for displaced people.
While Sweden provided asylum to all the players who participated in the tournament, one local club, Östersunds FK, went even further. They partnered with the Darfur United Football Club, a team made up of players from the Refugee World Cup, allowed the Sudanese team to use their training ground, and fostered a lasting relationship with the refugee community.
Several ÖFK players and staff also pledged a portion of their salaries to the Zero Point One campaign, which supports humanitarian efforts and youth soccer programs inside camps for Darfuri refugees in Chad.
6/ Toronto FC
Toronto’s Major League Soccer embraced the city’s reputation as the world’s most multicultural city, by welcoming refugees as they acclimated to life in Canada.
In 2016, Toronto FC connected with the Syrian Eagles, an all-refugee team, and invited more than a thousand members of the Syrian refugee community to attend a match against Orlando SC. Refugees in the stands played traditional tabla drums and cheered throughout the game.
“It’s an amazing experience for me,” said Abdou Lamousali, the Eagles’ captain and a former professional soccer player in Syria. “That was the best point in my life.”
MLS legend Dwayne de Rosario, a Toronto native, was also on hand to support the Syrian community. “We welcome the refugees with open arms,” he said.
Back in January, another Toronto star, Michael Bradley, took to Instagram to express his support for refugees and migrants after the Trump Administration issued its first travel ban.
“While I understand the need for safety, the values, and ideals of our country should never be sacrificed,” the Toronto FC and US Men’s National Team captain wrote. “The Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward
The MLS Players Union quickly came out in support of Bradley’s comments, adding that they were “extremely disappointed by the ban,” and believe “it runs counter to the values of inclusiveness that define us as a nation.”
Major League Soccer is a Global Citizen partner.
7/ Phoenix Rising FC
It seems fitting that Phoenix Rising FC — a team whose city and name reference the mythological bird that burns to ash before experiencing new life — is helping people displaced by conflict as they begin their new lives in Arizona.
Arizona’s top professional club partnered with local businesses to create the Rising in America program, which encourages supporters to buy tickets for refugees in the Phoenix area and builds a bridge between long-time residents and their new neighbors.
“Phoenix Rising FC embraces our diverse community and understands how important it is to have impactful relationships that will inspire and benefit our youth,” the club said in a press release. “We fell in love with Rising In America’s mission to nourish our refugee community through the beautiful game.”
The Rising in America project is part of the Welcome to Arizona Project. The Project coordinates with local resettlement agencies that help refugees transition to life in Phoenix.
“This is a dream come true for many of these kids,” Welcome to Arizona’s director said.
Phoenix Rising. Embrace Diversity. Refugees Welcome. pic.twitter.com/SfEgxEivtb— Mark Kokanovich (@kokanovich) September 3, 2017
8/ FC Barcelona
In June, FC Barcelona — a Global Citizen partner — joined the United Nations' High Commissioner on Refugees in a campaign to support refugee children called #SignAndPass.
“I am proud to be part of this important initiative in favour of refugees and hope it will help change the dramatic situation that millions of refugee children around the world are currently experiencing. Sign and pass!” said Lionel Messi, the club’s iconic striker.
The campaign encourages fans to sign UNHCR’s #WithRefugees petition that calls on governments and citizens to ensure all refugees have access to education, jobs, and safe places to live.
"This is one of the most serious problems the world has faced in recent decades," said FC Barcelona chairman Josep Maria Bartomeu told Marca. "Of more than 21 million refugees, more than half are children.”
Meanwhile, Barcelona also introduced its FutbolNet program at refugee camps in Greece, Italy, and Lebanon. According to the team’s website, FutbolNet uses sports to improve social skills, promote conflict resolution, and foster integration among refugee children.
BONUS CLUBS/ Bayern Munich, Paris St. Germain, Real Madrid and other European giants
Barcelona isn’t the only iconic club to provide direct relief to refugees. In 2015, German giants Bayern Munich, perennial French champions Paris St. Germain, and reigning Champions League-title holder Real Madrid all donated at least 1 million euros to refugee aid organizations.
“FC Bayern see it as its social responsibility to help those fleeing and suffering children, women and men, to support them and accompany them in Germany,” Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, said in a statement.
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