UEFA organized a European Championship for refugees and asylum seekers
When he was 14, Tareq Altorok came to Ireland alone as an unaccompanied minor in search of a better future for himself. He left his family in his native Palestine and a life that he felt lacked basic needs and any hope. Unable to go to school most of the time due to the ongoing conflict, he and his friends spent the time playing football in the streets. And it was football that allowed him to escape. Ireland had granted him and his team-mates visas to visit and represent Palestine in a friendly tournament. There he sought asylum.
This summer, Altorok, now 19, took part in a new soccer tournament as one of many displaced people. The Unity Euro Cup was organized by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the governing body that has hosted the prestigious European Championship since 1958, which sees national teams from across the continent compete for many fans, the number two after the World Cup. The brand new tournament has recreated the drama – but with teams made up only of refugees and asylum seekers. The aim was to create connections between displaced people and their new communities, which is often difficult in normal everyday life. Players and organizers say the inaugural cup was competitive and fun and could return in an expanded format.
UEFA’s partner was UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, which is exploring ways in which sport can help refugees integrate. In particular, it saw something in the power of football. It’s the most popular sport around the world, has relatively simple rules and doesn’t require much to start a game other than a ball and four jerseys as goalposts. And it diverts attention from the differences between established and newly arrived populations. “When everyone’s playing football, no one cares where you’re from or what language you speak,” says Jody Clarke, UNHCR’s senior associate for external relations. “It’s a great leveler.”
Various European nations are already doing successful integration work through football. So the organizers chose eight national teams from countries with a track record of running these programs to Switzerland, the tournament’s host country. In Clarke’s home republic of Ireland, for example, the Football Association of Ireland already works with Tusla, the nationwide support scheme for young people from refugee backgrounds, and offers local football programs such as B. The weekly training sessions for unaccompanied minors in the south Dublin suburb of Ringsend. These players were part of the team that went to the Unity Cup.
Other teams formed in a similar manner. German players were recruited by a local club, FC Motor Neubrandenburg Süd, which is largely made up of immigrant players and aims to help refugees integrate into a rural community. In Austria, players came from a group called Kick without limits, which uses football to unite underprivileged youth in the country. In Italy, the team was made up partly of the RETE project, mainly Senegalese refugees, who joined forces with three female professionals Players who fled Afghanistan and found refuge in Florence and now plays professionally in an Italian league. For these young women, suddenly ripped off from everything they know, it was a way to learn Italian and make Italian friends.
Each team brought an “ambassador”, basically a coach, some of whom are well-known in the sport, such as Italy’s Demetrio Albertini, the former player who reached the final of Euro 2000 himself (only to lose to France in extra time ). Teams and ambassadors gathered for the competition on June 29 at the Colovray Stadium in Nyon, Switzerland. Like the real Euros, it consisted of play-in-group stages and then a single-elimination tournament, but all condensed into one A day. The teams consisted of both men and women – 70% refugees and 30% non-refugee nationals.
Altorok, a member of the Irish team, has played football since his days in Palestine, taking a break from a dangerous life in the Gaza Strip. He says he has endured four wars and has always lived in fear of being killed, a fate shared by many of his close friends. “As soon as I step onto the field, I just feel peaceful,” he says. “It brings the joy into my life.”
His trip to Ireland four years ago was not easy as he had to negotiate fighting in Sinai between Egyptian forces and ISIS on the way to Cairo airport. But Ireland, a country historic Greeting the Palestinians, granted him asylum and a place to live and go to school. “They were very hospitable,” he says of his new home. “They’ve been so helpful, so nice.” He is now enrolled in a college civil engineering course and has played for three competitive soccer teams. When he was selected for the tournament, “I was very proud to be there and to represent Ireland in particular, the country that took me into their hands and looked after me,” he says. “I felt like it was a way to pay off.”
He says the level of competition at the Unity Cup was impressive, although it varied by team; The Germans were the most impressive. Clarke agrees and is reminded of Ex’s tongue-in-cheek quote England striker Gary Lineker: “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans win.” And at the Unity Cup Germany won, in the final first 2-2 against Switzerland, then as winners on penalties. It was close, says Clarke, and the younger Swiss team “surrounded the Germans” in the second half. But not for the first time the Germans found a way.
By comparison, Altorok says Ireland was less prepared. But the young man, who plays as an attacking midfielder, says they did better than expected, finishing fifth out of eight. “We actually did well,” he says. “Everyone thought we were just going to get hammered.” He could have another chance to improve Ireland’s standing as UEFA and UNHCR aim to stage the tournament again, perhaps in a longer, expanded format. But they also wanted to prove that these friendly competitions serve to bring people together and that they can be easily replicated at local and national levels. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to host a football tournament,” says Clarke. “And it certainly doesn’t cost anything to invite the new neighbors to a football game.”
For Altorok, it brought people together. He made friends with players from all nations, shared their refugee stories, ate their local food together, and danced to music from different cultures. “Everyone had different moves,” he says. He now has friends in France, Germany and Switzerland – many of whom have praised his skills and said he has the ability to play professionally. (He held that praise high because “they were ballers; they were that good.”) That camaraderie is hard to find in everyday life, when refugees are often seen as quiet and reserved. That gave them a voice. “It gives the refugees the feeling of being something,” he says.
Until the next competition, Altorok is back in Ireland – where his family has now joined him thanks to a reunification program. “Life is starting to get better now,” he says. “There is no fear of being killed. It’s just so peaceful and safe.”