Auckland , New Zealand

It Starts with Soccer

Refugees in Sport Initiative, Refugees as Survivors

June 27, 2011

The universal language of sport reduces the isolation of young refugees while fostering a sense of connection and belonging.

Like music, sport has the power to overcome cultural and ethnic differences, to rally a community and to create a sense of confidence and belonging.

For many newcomers, however, the practical necessities of housing, schooling and employment leave little room for other interests or local offerings.

“Sports is the last thing that they will think of on top of all the other resettlement things,” says Dr. Arif Saeid, Community Services Manager for Refugees as Survivors, an Auckland-based non-profit that provides services that include community development.

For Saeid this was a missed opportunity.

A Beautiful Game

In the city of Auckland, soccer is being used as a deliberate and strategic tool to reduce the social isolation of young refugees and to help them feel a sense of connection and belonging – both with each other and to the wider community.

The Refugees in Sport Initiative was started in 2006 by Refugees As Survivors (RAS), a non-profit refugee mental health agency that provides services that include community development.

After conducting a series of community consultations, the organization realized that programs were needed to enable refugee youth to achieve better access into mainstream sports and have a safe place to meet with others who both shared and understood their experience.

The initial focus was on soccer as it was seen as the sport that would appeal to the most people while addressing issues that had been identified as the barriers preventing refugees from participating in community activities, such as cost of services, language and cultural difference.

“Soccer is a universal language and culture. It has its own culture and it doesn’t need [a specific] the language. You can play on a team,” says Dr. Saeid. “It’s a point of integration. It helps refugees get more involved in the community and it helps them with better settlement.”

Winning Partnerships

Working in partnership with what is now the Auckland Football Federation and local soccer clubs (with the support from the City of Auckland), RAS developed a series of practical programs to help refugees achieve better access into mainstream New Zealand sports.

The Refugees in Sports Initiative now provides young players with a “passport” to local clubs as well as financial support to enable them to join (a fund supports refugee families to subsidize 50% of club fees and equipment for their children – both boys and girls).

With the Auckland Football Federation, RAS also created the “All Refs,” an all refugee soccer team (clothed in United Nations blue!) who play against local teams through the financial sponsorship of a private firm, Malcolm Pacific Immigration Consultancy. They arranged for exhibition games to bring players and their families together as well as offering coaching clinics and workshops.

The program has also expanded to offer other sports such as cricket and martial arts. It also includes another fund to encourage girls from refugee backgrounds to also participate in both team and individual sports, such as tennis and swimming.


“Refugees from all countries and all languages love soccer, and many of our groups just need a place to play and some support” says Dr. Saeid. Formerly a medical practitioner with Medecins San Frontiers in Afghanistan, he remembers the dark days when sport was banned in his native country and the debilitating effect it had on the community.

More than 400 youth have participated in the program and show better levels of integration into wider society, reduced social isolation as well as improved self-esteem and cultural pride.

“Thanks to RAS, we are able to showcase our talent and do something that we really enjoy,” says Mohammed Shakir Nesar, team leader, All Refs. “Our team has traveled to places like Hamilton, Whangarei and Wellington to play against the local teams. We have moved beyond being a group of refugees and now have Kiwis and Europeans in our team.”

RAS has also made sure to include projects that empower participants. One example is training their soccer players to become coaches. Twelve were chosen for to learn through the support of NZ Football.

In 2009, RAS added a new program to its repertoire, the Refugee Youth Action Network to focus on training a new generation of youth leaders from the various refugee communities. The pilot phase provided outdoor leadership training to 90 young people and in 2011, RAS opened a new youth centre for the project.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission has recognized the Refugee in Sports Initiative as part of their Diversity Action Program.

Making it Work for You:

  • Consult the community to learn more about the challenges they face, then review existing services for barriers or gaps in services.
  • Engage the entire community (refugee parents, teachers, etc) and recognize their contribution.
  • Who are your community partners? You can achieve better outcomes by working in cooperation with others. The Survivor Soccer Initiative brought in the local governing sport body, the private sector and the city of Auckland.
  • Build on your strengths! Adapt winning program models to new audiences and program areas-- from soccer to cricket... to cooking or  bridge clubs!

Themes: Live, Sports

For this Good Idea contact:

Dr. Arif Saeid, Community Services Manager, Refugees As Survivors New Zealand
251 Massey Road Mangere
P.O. Box 22-315
Otahuhu, Auckland,
Tel: (09) 270-1251

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