in Europe
English

"In my country, we played in the mud, the few times we felt safe to get out of the house"

2019-08-22

The following is a translation of the original story in Greek «Στη χώρα μου, παίζαμε στις λάσπες, τις λίγες φορές που νιώθαμε ασφαλείς να βγούμε από το σπίτι» that was published on Popaganda.gr, July 17, 2019. All copyrights belong to Popaganda.gr / Melina Spathari. 

In Thessaloniki, Greece, a different "international" soccer team of minors proves that all you need to cross borders, minds, nationalities, language and age is a black and white ball.

Thursday afternoon in Thessaloniki, early July. At Agiou Dimitriou Street, the city gives the impression that it has been massively abandoned under the weight of 35 degrees Celsius. By crossing the road, the only "visible" inhabitants are a group of stray dogs resting lazily on the road, hypnotized by the heatwave. However, looking carefully through the railings, to the small football pitch of Hortatzidon – attached to Ivanovio - you feel an unusual bustle. As you approach, you see a bunch of young boys gathered around a man with a beard, who gives training instructions and takes attendance. A boy is hurriedly changing his T-shirt, another one is tying his shoes, the coach finally whistles, and all of them are rushing to the pitch.

Every Tuesday and Thursday at the same time, young people aged over 15 - "children", that is, as defined by the UN Convention of 1989, of various nationalities, cultures and religions, start from different parts of the city, take the bus and come here to play football. The  pitch which has been kindly offered by the Herakles Sports Association for training courses organized by the child protection organisation Terre des hommes Hellas.

Farhat sits on the bench patiently waiting for his turn to play. He is 16 years old, from Afghanistan. Like other teammates he lives in one of the "safezones", the special areas of residence for minors in the camps for asylum seekers. Before reaching Thessaloniki, he spent some months in the corresponding area of ​​Lesvos. "In Moria I played a little volleyball, but inside, I did not have anywhere to go. Here in Thessaloniki the good thing is that you can get out of the camp for a while, make a break, feel part of the city and its everyday life, remember how life was in your city before you became a migrant. As for football? I never dreamed that I would find the opportunity to play in a real team, on a "normal" pitch. In my country, we played on the road in the mud, the few times we felt safe to get out of the house."

As the time passes, the "match" also gets viewers, locals who have finished their training on the adjacent cricket or athletics pitch. I have already counted 9 different nationalities, children from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Ivory Coast, Congo, Greece, Albania, Serbia, Morocco, so the stadium resembles a melting pot of human ethnicities.

Training has a specific structure and a "routine" that is strictly observed. Their coach, Thomas Farines, of French and Brazilian descent, explains that this is to ensure that children have some sense of safety that is missing from their daily lives in the camp and more generally from their lives as people on the move, as most come from countries with unstable living conditions or are in a precarious situation in Greece. And how did he find himself in Thessaloniki, coaching refugees? "Like many children all over the world, I started playing football from an early age and I dreamt big," he says. "Although the dream of becoming a great footballer has not been successful, I have never ceased to draw great pleasure from it, especially by studying its relationship with politics. I studied  Political Sciences of the Middle East and the Mediterranean in the UK and I practiced at the United Nations Office for Sport, Development and Peace, wanting to expand my knowledge of how sport can be a valuable tool in improving societies." 

In Thessaloniki, Thomas arrived in March 2017 to work on a small community project outside the Basilica refugee camp. Along the way, he ran several programmes to promote social inclusion and psychosocial support through football. Up to now, he has trained more than 30 different nationalities, from African, Asian, and European countries. Some of the children come from countries with armed conflict, e.g. Syria, Iraq, and DR Congo. Others are from countries for which we are unaware that they are at war, such as Guinea and Cameroon. Regardless of where they come from, their religion, gender or age, they share a common passion beyond their dream of reaching Europe and making  better lives: a passion for football. The majority do not (yet) run the risk of being homeless, most children have found shelter either in a refugee camp, or in a shelter for unaccompanied children, or in a "protected apartment".

Ιt's half-time, and a crowd of teenage girls wearing hijabs has now joined the fanclub. Kissi is 18 years old from Africa and lives in a "protected" apartment of the ESTIA programme of UNHCR with her mother and her three siblings. She also plays football, every Monday and Wednesday at the same time, in special training sessions for girls. "I was playing soccer in my home country, but they did not take me seriously. Here it is different, I feel very much, how to say it .. empowered!", she says laughing. Her girlfriend explains that various recreational and skills building projects are provided to refugee girls, however, few escape the role prescribed to women, namely cooking, sewing courses and so on. "It is also very important for us to participate in fitness activities", they say.

The whistle for the second half has been given and the players are re-routed to the ground. Their coach stays behind and watches the game from the outside. At some point, spirits get high and the match is interrupted, but he does not rush to intervene. "Our role here is to encourage children, motivating them to "lead", to "own" the game. Farhad, Ahmed from Syria, Quassi from Africa, and the rest of the boys are free to decide on the outcome. Even when disagreements arise," he explains, "which is expected, if you take into the account how many languages ​​and different cultures compete on the pitch - it is always the children themselves who mediate to find a solution and calm the spirits." And indeed, it only takes them three minutes to make peace and resume the game.

"Sport has the power to unite people around a peaceful ideal, in a way that few other activities can within a society," says Terre des hommes Hellas director Jezerca Tigani, who is also head of Tdh’s Southeastern Europe Delegation, adding: "As an organisation, we have been using sport for many years as a tool for social inclusion and psychosocial support, to promote the well-being of society as a whole, especially for vulnerable, displaced people on the move, and particularly children. We want to give children the opportunity to play football in a safe environment. Also, offer opportunities to people interested in becoming coaches of vulnerable people, through a special methodology that includes social inclusion, social cohesion and psychosocial support. This methodology is aimed at physical education teachers, football coaches, or people who just want to help vulnerable children".

The sun has started to set and soon the game will be over, the kids will get the bus to go back to the camps, to their shelters and appartments. Each one of them, a different story, sometimes a trauma. As he’s leaving, Thomas says that in some way, apart from their coach, he is also their "trustee". "I try to be open, listen to their stories, but make them realise that I am also human and that I have my boundaries. The message I want to give them is that regardless of what happened to them back in their country and while travelling to Greece, regardless also of the difficulties in their everyday life, they can get from sport a positive attitude and a lot of resilience in their efforts for a better life."

* All children's names in this story have been changed.