More Than Just A Game For Refugees

How Australia’s love of sport can help refugees integrate into society.

Since 1901 Australia has settled over 800,000 refugees and humanitarian migrants. We currently speak over 260 different languages and identify with 270 ancestries, but one thing brings us together like no other: our obsession with sport.

The Australian Sports Commission estimates that 80 per cent of Australians participate in some form of sport, but the sad fact is that Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds – a group that includes the majority of refugees – are much less likely to play sport.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 52 per cent of non-English speaking males participate in physical activity, with that number dropping again to 48 per cent for women.

The importance of sport for people’s physical and mental health is well documented, but for refugees it provides a range of other benefits.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says sport is a vital tool for social inclusion, integration and the mutual understanding of cultures. The UNHCR also acknowledges that participation in sport can play a “particularly important and healing role for refugees” recovering from the traumas of the refugee experience.

However, despite its importance, sport is not always at the top of the agenda for refugees arriving in Australia. Refugees usually arrive with few possessions and limited financial assets, making the costs of participating in sport a huge barrier.

According to a study by Deakin University, the annual spending on junior sport participation ranges from $1000 to $5000+ per child, depending on the sport. These costs are near impossible for refugee families trying to establish themselves in a new country.

Kuany Kuany knows all too well of these challenges. He was born in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the home of 179,000 refugees who are escaping violence and persecution in neighbouring African countries. Kauny’s parents fled a raging civil war in their homeland of South Sudan.

Kauny – the oldest of seven children – moved to Australia with his family when he was just nine-years-old. Sport has always been a part of his life, from playing soccer in the refugee camp to basketball in Australia.

“Growing up in Africa, almost everyone played soccer and that’s where I was introduced to sport,” said Kuany.

Now 20 years old and playing basketball in the U.S for Chaminade University in Honolulu, Hawaii Kuany looked back on his experiences as a refugee playing sport in Australia.

“Through sport, I met a lot of people from different backgrounds. It helped me become a member of other communities and build life-lasting relationships with people I could trust.”

But he explained that too many times he saw talented players miss out on sporting opportunities because of their circumstances as refugees. “I’ve witnessed a number of my friends from refugee backgrounds make teams, then quit the next week because they couldn’t afford to pay for the registration fee or the uniforms,” he says.

“There was also one incident when my friend and I tried out for a team and although we were better than the other players, we weren’t chosen because we had no way of getting to the away games.”

Kuany said racism also acts as a strong deterrent for refugees wanting to play sport.

“I’ve definitely experienced racism on a number of occasions,” said Kuany. “Most of it occurs during games where someone in the crowd, or a player in the game, yells something insulting at you about your race or colour.”

Kauny believes if these areas are improved on, “there’ll be in increase in the number of refugees participating in sport across the country.”

Numerous studies have identified the multiple barriers which refugees face when trying to access sport and physical activity. These include financial constraints like the costs of uniform, registration and transport; to cultural barriers like the lack of cultural sensitivity in sporting environments and discrimination. While sport can promote inclusiveness, it can also be a site for exclusion, discrimination and racism.

Karen Block, a researcher from Melbourne University, is in the process of completing a study that looks at the different models for promoting sport participation in children from refugee backgrounds. She explained that the obstacles are well known and we now have to look into methods to combat them.

“A model that seems to work well is where sporting clubs employ a community liaison or ‘multicultural sports aide’ who helps clubs and the families to communicate. They also organize transport and find ways to subsidise costs.”

She explained an injection of funding is not the only answer and a “holistic response that deals with all the barriers” is necessary.

Through her research Block met countless young refugees with the desire to play sport but lacking the avenue to do so. “There are real opportunities for them to experience success and because sport is also such a big part of Australian society it’s a way to participate in the Australian community” she said.

Block explained that many young refugees come from situations in which schooling has been highly disrupted or, in some cases, they have not had the opportunity to attend school at all. Sport allows refugees to participate on a level playing field and “not be disadvantaged because they don’t speak English or have missed out on education prior to arrival,” said Block.

Through her research Block aims to submit a successful model to the government for funding. “My aim is to show it’s a project worth funding, because there’s definitely a demand out there.”

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Victoria strongly promotes sporting programs in their social and community development work. Their community programs aim to foster the empowerment, resilience, independence, self-sufficiency and contribution of asylum seekers.

Courtney Green is the Social and Community Development Manager at the ASRC and when she started in her position 4 years ago, she noticed a lack of programs that connected refugees with the outside community.

This prompted her to establish the ASRC’s soccer program, which formed teams to play in the Victorian Amateur Soccer League. The program is funded by the ASRC and breaks down the common barriers by paying for registration, uniforms and providing transportation to and from games.

“Sport is a great way to give people a sense of belonging and a reason to get up in the morning,” said Green. “When they run out on the pitch they’re seen as players and not just people seeking asylum. It became very obvious that this was more than just a sport or soccer.”

Green recounted their first ever soccer game in 2012 as one of her “proudest moments”.

“We rocked up really late and with not enough players,” said Green. “We got to the ASRC to go to the game and someone had taken the van, so we didn’t have transportation and had to take a maxi taxi. We lost the game 2-12 but the guys were still jumping around so excited.”

“Even the games we lose we’re still winning because we’re there, we’re making friends and we’re having fun. And to me that’s what it’s always been about.”

Green has also tried to foster small social events like having barbeques after the games, so the refugee team can “build connections with the community”.

The ASRC has also made positive steps in combatting the lack of culturally appropriate sporting programs for women. Women’s opportunities to participate in sport can be limited due to the nature of sporting environments and cultural restrictions from within their own communities.

“In the last couple of years we’ve tried to look more at how we support women,” said Green. “A lot of women were speaking to us about their health concerns. Like they’d put on weight or developed diabetes since they’d come to Australia.”

“We started by developed a walking group and as the women got fitter they started jogging and then they started running. They got to the stage where they could participate in a few key events like the Run for Refugees.”

Green hopes that by working with local councils they can get more refugees involved in sporting programs.

Often for those in communities wanting to involve refugees in sporting programs it can seem like an overwhelming task. The research project A Bridge to a New Culture: Promoting the participation of refugees in sporting activities draws together conclusions from research on the participation of refugees in sport and lessons learned from organisations that have developed innovative approaches.

The report advises that it is important for those running sporting programs to build a rapport with community leaders and explore options for promoting their programs through ethnic media. The report also states that encouraging refugee participation “provides a unique opportunity to widen a clubs membership base and increase the prospect for recruiting skilled players”.

There is no doubt that sport is a universal language. It helps build a bridge between one culture and another and it helps refugees understand Australia and allows Australians to understand – and sympathise with – the stories of refugees. Sport builds trust and understanding, thereby acting as an entry point for refugees to participate in other aspects of community life.

And when it comes down to it, we’re all humans kicking the same ball down the same path. So why not do it together?

First published in Catalyst Magazine.

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