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At play: Members of Football United in Lurnea, Australia, play a friendly game. Ahmad Pathoni
Shegufa Hassani arrived in Australia seven years ago from Pakistan, where she was a refugee for two years after fleeing the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Now Shegufa is a confident 16-year-old girl and speaks fluent English complete with a strong Australian accent.
“My dad came here when I was two. He came by boat and he stayed here for seven years and then he called us over,” said Shegufa, who was wearing a white headscarf, pants and sneakers.
Shegufa is a participant in Football United, a program to integrate migrants and refugees into Australian society through soccer.
Founded in 2006 by Anne Bunde-Birouste, coordinator at the University of New South Wales’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Football United takes advantage of people’s love for soccer to promote belonging, racial harmony and community cohesion.
Assmaah Helal, Football United’s community coordinator in Sydney, said in addition to allowing young people to play soccer for fun, the program also developed leadership skills in the participants.
“Soccer is the world game. It brings people together, promotes social harmony, leadership, teamwork and life skills, so we use it to engage with young people,” Helal said.
“We work with the migrant youth but we also encourage them to mix with Australian youth, so there’s a good mix between the two,” she said.
She said newly-arrived migrants had problems adjusting to new lives in Australia, partly because many of them did not speak English.
Refugees from conflict-ravaged countries often carry emotionally traumatic experiences with them, such as loss of family members, torture or life-threatening events.
“There are also education barriers. Many of them haven’t had formal education where they come from. They find it hard to adapt to the system here,” Helal said.
“You also have inter-generational cultural problems or gaps. The youth settle into the culture a lot quicker than their parents and so that causes tensions between the two,” she said.
Helal said the project had been extremely successful. It has now spread to 11 locations in Sydney, involving 600 people, and has also been adopted in Canberra and South Australia. Other countries have also expressed interest in implementing the program.
Some of the participants had gone on to become professional soccer players at the state level, she said.
Five Indonesian participants of the Indonesia-Australia Muslim Exchange Programme took part in one of the games in June and witnessed for themselves how youths of different racial and ethnic backgrounds played together at Lurnea High School in Lurnea, a suburb of Sydney.
“Before today, the last time I played soccer was 15 years ago. Now my body aches all over. But it was fun,” said Ahmad Zainal Abidin, a 38-year-old lecturer at the State Islamic College in Tulungagung, East Java.
Program founder Bunde-Birouste said the kids proposed the name Football United and it was adopted in a unanimous vote.
“Here we call football soccer too” Bunde-Birouste said, commenting on the use of the term football, instead of soccer to refer to the beautiful game.
“We used to call it The Refugee Youth Soccer Development Programme, it was a mouthful and wasn’t very catchy,” she said.
Every year thousands of people from conflict-ravaged countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka arrive in Australia, many of them by boat.
There is a political debate in Australia about the issue of asylum seekers; with some saying the country should receive fewer of them while others believe it should take in more.
Bill Collopy, client services manager at the Southern Migrant and Refugee Center in Dandenong, Victoria, said although asylum seekers who came by boat often made headlines, the majority of refugees came in by plane.
Migrants who have lived in Australia often tell their relatives back home that life down under is a bed of roses.
“They don’t always get accurate information. [They tell relatives that] when you get here the government will give you a house, the government will give you a job, you’ll have lots of money,” Collopy said.
“People often arrive with false expectations and it can be quite difficult,” he said, adding that resettling the migrants was a major problem because of the rising price of housing.
Shegufa said she had relatives who were still in Indonesia, awaiting refugee status so they could be resettled in a third country.
Indonesia has for years been used as a transit point by asylum seekers wanting to settle in Australia. Many later embark on dangerous journeys using rickety boats to Christmas Island, an Australian territory where the government processes their eligibility to settle in the country.
As a participant in Football United, Shegufa said she got to meet different people with different personalities.
“I love it. Every day, every Friday I can’t wait to play. I love the people and coaches and its great atmosphere,” she said. “I think it’s given me a lot of confidence.”
Asked about how she felt being Muslim in Australia, she said: “There’s nothing different about it. It just depends on the person. If you get to know the person it doesn’t really matter if you’re Muslim, Christian or Hindu.”