Refugees in Ireland find their footing with soccer tournament

As national soccer teams battle for the World Cup title in Russia, refugee communities in Ireland are lacing up to compete in the Fair Play World Cup in Dublin, a yearly tournament that aims to raise awareness of the plight of immigrants and help them integrate. 

Yves Herman/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Asylum seekers take part in a soccer tournament on World Refugee Day, in Deurne, Belgium, on June 20, 2018, one of several tournaments in Europe for refugees. In Ireland, refugees have gathered to play in Dublin's Fair Play World Cup for the past nine years.

As Fadi hits a penalty shot into the back of the net, it is hard to believe that just a few years ago the Syrian teenager thought his soccer playing days were over when a house collapsed on him in an accident in his native Aleppo.

The young refugee, who suffered a broken leg and back, now lives in Ireland, where a soccer tournament with a difference has drawn crowds that are every bit as enthusiastic as those gathered in Russia for the World Cup – if rather smaller.

Every summer, refugee communities in Ireland form teams that compete in the Fair Play World Cup, now in its ninth year.

The seven-a-side tournament is held in central Dublin and draws players from refugee communities all over Ireland whose countries of origin range from Vietnam to South Sudan, with the aim of raising awareness and helping them to integrate.

Growing up in Aleppo, Fadi, a handsome 18-year-old who wears his hair fashionably slicked back, was a keen soccer player until the accident happened shortly before the war .

Now he trains regularly and competed alongside other members of his family in a team they formed with the help of volunteers at the camp in Greece where they lived before moving to Ireland.

"When we play [soccer] together we have fun and see each other, we speak to each other about the past and where we are now," Fadi, who asked that his family name not be used, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This year's tournament was the first in which the Cafe Rits team – named after a cafe in the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece – have competed.

But they took it seriously – their Greek coach Dmitrios Ermilios even flew over to put them through their paces ahead of the contest.

As did Carolynn Rockafellow, an American former investment banker who set up Cafe Rits and helped get the soccer team off the ground.

"The one thing that cheered everybody up is [soccer], and it was clearly something that unified the camp," she said. "It really made a difference."

Fadi fled Aleppo in 2014 along with his parents and siblings, including his 20-year-old brother Ali, who also plays in the team. Both would have been drafted into the Syrian army if they had stayed.

Altogether 38 family members crossed into Turkey before making the perilous journey by sea on to Greece – a feat they say was achieved through teamwork and has helped them to be better contestants. They are among the more than 2,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Ireland since the war began in 2011, and they are the lucky ones. Life here is better than it was in the camp in Greece.

Nonetheless, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says they face difficulties including isolation, which soccer can help combat.

"Sport is one of the best ways to get new communities to meet Irish people they meet people down on the training ground they meet people when they are at [soccer]," said spokesman Jody Clarke.

Among the teams competing for the Fair Play Cup are one from South Sudan and one made up of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

Mohammed Rafique, a Rohingya who resettled in Ireland in 2009 with 16 other families from the Muslim minority, said the contest helped show they were "humans like everyone else."

"I suppose [soccer] in Uganda and [soccer] here is all [soccer]," he said. "It's about playing it and being with your friends and having fun."

In the end the Cafe Ritz team did not win the tournament. But Fadi's brother Ali, undaunted, is already looking forward to next year.

"When we get a house to stay in, we look for a [soccer] club and get more practice and training and join the tournament again," he said.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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