At the beginning of 2022, Edinburgh programme manager Robbie Wood was made aware of a community of Afghanistan refugees living in the city with little respite. Fast forward to the end of the year and the group have found an affinity with Street Soccer, with weekly targeted sessions and extra-curricular activities to support their integration in to Scottish society.
“The sessions came about earlier this year, around March. I was made aware that a lot of the Afghan community were living in two hotels in central Edinburgh. I had some meetings with the group at the hotels and found out what they wanted in terms of sport, whether that be football or other things”, said Robbie.
With clear appetite for football, cricket and other support services, Robbie got to work on delivering a local session for the group that would help improve both their physical and mental wellbeing.
“I found a venue that was within walking distance from the hotels and it started every Thursday evening at Fettes College. That continued until end of June, until the school year ended. During that time, we were able to help the players with kit, equipment, trainers etc. From here, some of the group started to attend other sessions when they could, which was great to see and we ran additional activities over the summer months to maintain that momentum.”
The session now takes place every Friday evening at Leith Community Centre and allows the group to access free football and support services, wherever necessary. The current format of programmes in the area means that a lot of the children from the Afghan community are able to come to the Street Soccer session in the afternoon, whilst the parents can stay for the evening activity.
Robbie believes that football is as good as a tool as any for social integration and that this has been evident over the course of the last nine months.
“I believe that the sessions are really positive for the guys and are helping them integrate quite well, a lot of them attend school and college and we all know how great football is at breaking down barriers. We are also trying to deliver new experiences whenever we can, such as exhibition 11-a-side games wherever possible – so if anyone is interested, please get in touch!”
On top of the session itself, the Edinburgh team have able to access funding to provide brand new bikes to the players, as well as free gym passes and tickets to Hibs games. Robbie emphasises that its crucial to keep the players active and allow flexibility for them as they settle in to a new country.
A highlight amongst this was undoubtedly the experience for the players at the Street Soccer Nations Cup event in Dundee, where 10 players represented Team Afghanistan. The Friday session was used as training for this in anticipation of the tournament, with the boys performing incredibly well across the weekend.
“After Nations Cup, you could spot a wee uplift in the mood around the sessions. The experience was extremely positive, I’m not sure the players really expected what took place. The amount of people there and the atmosphere was something that maybe took them by surprise. Whilst there, we tried to foster that same team ethos and ensure all the guys were working together and supporting one another.”
Wood notes that there now seems to be a visible connection with Street Soccer, with great enthusiasm surrounding the weekly session. The group have also been accessing Street Soccer’s multi-purpose social hub The Dugout in Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre to watch World Cup fixtures and socialise with one another. This is just another aspect of the community coming together through football.
“The guys absolutely love their football and the buzz at the sessions is great. I do believe that it cant be easy living in a hotel, with their families and so on, so a lot of it for us is just getting players out, active and enjoying this game that we’re all obsessed with. The guys have bonded extremely well with one another and also with the coaches and volunteers that attended the sessions too”, highlights Robbie.
Looking forward to 2023, the Edinburgh manager is excited by the potential of the programme as it continues to evolve. He notes that despite numbers being consistently excellent as part of the weekly session, Street Soccer will remain on the lookout for new ways to support and engage this group among others.
“The ethos that we carry from the majority of our sessions doesn’t change when it comes to supporting refugees, we still focus on it being inclusive, fun, friendly and supportive. I feel like football is an effective form of therapy for trauma, loss, displacement, poor mental health etc. However, it is still important to note that we want to remain agile to support these communities as they come to a new environment, we want to try and support their needs.
In 2023, we are looking to foster more links with local football clubs. There is a real desire from some of the players to play more structured 11-a-side football and we would look to support that where we can. Whether we can do that by providing players to other clubs, or by developing an exhibition teams that can play other social-cause based football teams on a regular basis.”
With many different experiences across 2022, the Afghan community is a proud part of the Street Soccer family and we wish nothing but the best for the group heading in to a brand new year. If you would like to know more about our programmes in Edinburgh and how you can support, please get in touch with Robbie Wood on [email protected].