Sport for refugees everywhere, why not ?

Text: Laure Derenne - Photography: Virginie Nguyen

In 2019, Valentine settles in the university town of Leuven, which she chose for the opportunity of taking a master’s in adaptive physical activity. When asked to decide on a subject to be related to her internship, the young French woman immediately opted for a subject related to football, the sport that she’s been in love with ever since she was 10 years old. Throughout her many various encounters with them, she has significantly broadened her knowledge of the refugee community as well as how to facilitate their inclusion into sporting clubs.

With her international masters’ degree in adapted physical activities, Valentine is currently working for the Gym SANA association, which organizes sporting sessions for the elderly. She’s seen here leaving the « les Azalées » home, sporting equipment in hand.

It is in Antwerp that Valentine set foot in a refugee reception centre for the first time. One of the centre’s social workers explained to her that she organises yoga and dance sessions for the female residents. This “going the extra mile” approach strongly resonated with Valentine : « As a social worker, she already has a ton of things to take care of, especially since she isn’t necessarily a professional with a sporting degree. » She was also quite touched by the social worker’s thoughtfulness: « She knew that the women weren’t keen on being observed by the men at the centre, therefore she made sure that curtains of the dance room remained closed. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of that. I would have proceeded with the lesson without asking them: “How’s it going? Are you feeling okay?”, which is something I’d do a lot more naturally with a person with a physical or mental handicap for example. »

Inclusiveness in football: from the theory to the practical via Kraainem

The student discovered that the notion of « adaptive » sports extends to quite a bit further than just the realm of parasports. Indeed, it is a method of practicing sports in an entirely inclusive fashion, under any circumstance and for all types of participants, notably for migrants who face considerable challenges.

Valentine still lives in Leuven. She goes to the park quite often with her friend to play football.

It doesn’t come as much of surprise then to see Valentine land at Kraainem Football Club to observe and be inspired by their « We Welcome Young Refugees » project. Every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she takes part in the conversation tables, which bring the young refugees staying at the Fedasil Centre in Woluwé-Saint-Pierre, alongside the volunteers, Myriam, Alban and Jean-François. Valentine truly loves the moments where she can share her own culture, learn new words, discover tasty recipes and leave the club with plenty of joyful anecdotes.

After this hour-long cultural exchange, Valentine accompanies the young refugees to the pitch. It is here that they join a training session and Valentine helps them to understand and properly execute the exercises given by the coaches.

During a conversation session, Valentine presents a photo of Kevin De Bruyne, an international Belgian football player, to the unaccompanied foreign minors. She also tries to regularly learn new words in Arabic or in Pashtun.

Breaking down barriers on the pitch

Her observations are precious. She notices for example that the necessary amount of time required for a good presentation is not always a given. If this is the case, the names of the players (of Afghan, Eritrean, Iraqi origin to cite a few) are not remembered easily by the club’s affiliated members, who then simply end up calling them “the refugees”. As teammates must often call each other out by name on the pitch, this creates barriers as well as hindering contact between each other. Valentine suggests to the coach to favour mixed exercises to facilitate more personal instances of contacts between the players.

Among the refugees, the relationship towards football varies quite significantly. Some have never really played (the Afghans, for example, are generally more familiar with cricket). Others are probably more used to playing football in the streets rather than on a pitch : « I can guess this since they quickly find themselves being offside or they advance in the midfield and run all over the place, which tires them out too much », Valentine specifies. She does remember however two Ivorian boys and a few other characters who « knew how to place themselves very well, how to dribble, how to pass correctly ».

Managing cultural and linguistic differences requires flexibility and patience on the pitch. One needs to know how to explain things through a lot of signs and gestures, which are often applied repeatedly. Some coaches take the time to do so spontaneously, others don’t think about it as much, especially on Fridays, when the highly anticipated weekend game approaches.

Sadly, this is a match where the refugee players from Fedasil Woluwé-Saint-Pierre may not participate in. Indeed, the residents of this centre only stay for a few weeks after their arrival in Belgium. They are then sent to other reception centres, sometimes even in other provinces.

Dream big!

Valentine dreams of a broader sporting network which could maintain this support everywhere else. Which would mean that when they’d change centres, the refugee candidates could easily find other spaces to be able to practice sports. Not only in football clubs but also in places where they could practice activities such as climbing, pétanque, archery and forms of dance. « Why not ? », exclaims Valentine enthusiastically. In her home region of Annecy, some of the locals living in the mountains even organize entry-level skiing lessons for the refugees there.

Today, Valentine has graduated and is working for the Gym SANA association, which organizes physical activities for diverse groups of people (the elderly, the mentally handicapped or those weakened by a chronic illness). As passionate about football as ever, she dreams of coaching a team of refugee women and accompany them to the Olympics.

Valentine and her friend enjoy an ice cream in Leuven’s city-centre, where she’s been living for almost two years. She’s trying to motivate her to join a female football team with her.

Valentine celebrates carnival with young asylum seekers who take part in a conversation session before their football training. A particularly fun and memorable evening says Valentine, who finds these moments just as enriching for the young refugees as for herself.

Valentine dances to an Elvis Presley song next to her friend Sofie, who is preparing a barbecue on their balcony in Leuven. This is the music to which Valentine tries to get the elderly people who attend her workshops to dance.