Spirit of Unity: Football Helping Refugees Find Their Feet in England
Photographer: Neil Hall
For refugees and asylum seekers, starting a new life in the United Kingdom presents a host of tough challenges, from learning the language to finding common ground with the locals. But a grassroots soccer team in southern England has stepped in to help the newcomers to integrate and make friends in their new home.
"Borders divide us but there are no borders in football — we are the United Nations!", Tomson Chalke, founder and chairman of Sanctuary Strikers Football Club, tells epa-efe.
The club, founded in 2017 in Reading, was created to bring together refugees and non-refugees to play soccer in a spirit of unity, which he says is the essence of the world’s most popular sport. "Football is the beautiful game — it unites people and promotes community cohesion and integration," Chalke says.
Thanks to Sanctuary Strikers, members of minority communities have a place to come together, learn English, make friends and find out about the city. “If you have something that people love like football then people come together and start talking," Chalke, who is originally from Zimbabwe, explains. "When you start talking, you build relationships and we learn from each other's cultures."
Sanctuary Strikers plays at grass roots level in Division 3, Reading and District Sunday League, with players from backgrounds such as South Sudan, Zimbabwe and Eritrea. Asylum seekers and refugees are encouraged into the club, which is affiliated with the Reading Refugee Support Group.
Adam Hussai, who left Sudan in 2015, says: "Everything is so different to Sudan but this is a really friendly team and they made me feel so welcome. I come every week even if I sit on the bench or am the linesman. One day I hope to break into the first team."
Mohamed Adam, who is also from Sudan, came to England in 2008. He trains and occasionally plays with the club but was also able to use the team to hone his skills. Now he plays for a bigger club, AFC Aldermasten, in the Hellenic League Division One East. "The Strikers is fun and helped me find friends — you can lose 10-0 and still have a laugh."
For Chalke, helping players to integrate into a new country, join a community and move on to new teams and places is a key part of his club’s success. "Our job is done when we see players develop and play. Some have gone on to play at a semi-professional level. Who knows, perhaps one day they will end up in the Premier League."