Civil Society

How sport can unify, inspire and empower refugees worldwide

Goalkeeper in football match at Kakuma Refugee Camp: Football match at Kakuma Refugee Camp – Sports can be a unifying force for refugees worldwide.

Football match at Kakuma Refugee Camp – Sports can be a unifying force for refugees worldwide. Image: World Economic Forum

Christa Odinga-Svanteson
Impact Communications Manager, World Economic Forum
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  • The number of displaced people has increased annually for 12 years, with 69% of refugees hosted in neighbouring countries by the end of 2023.
  • Sports, particularly football, have facilitated social integration among refugees, as seen from the Kakuma Community Cohesion Initiative.
  • Leveraging the popularity of sports can refocus global attention on the plight of refugees, as The Hope Club hope to achieve.

“Conflicts often arise over shared resources, especially water. However, through sports, particularly football, we have found a way to bridge these divides. When young people play together, they create friendships and learn about each other’s cultures.”

So says Deng Dak, a South Sudanese refugee and a Global Shaper who has lived in the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya for 17 years. He has been a driving force behind a project uniting displaced people through sport, which he and others believe is a force of unity and hope for refugees around the world.

Sport in refugee communities can facilitate social integration. Through team activities, refugees build friendships, develop mutual respect and work towards common goals, reducing tensions and fostering a sense of belonging.

According to the UNHCR Global Trends Report 2023, at the end of 2023, an estimated 117.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing public order. This equates to more than one in every 69 people on Earth, nearly double the one in 125 people who were displaced a decade ago.

The number of displaced people has increased annually for 12 years, with 69% of refugees hosted in neighbouring countries by the end of 2023. Kakuma Refugee Camp, established in 1992, hosts over 288,000 refugees from neighbouring countries, encompassing over 30 ethnic groups with distinct cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds. The scarcity of resources, such as water, often leads to conflicts, particularly among the youth, who comprise approximately 60% of the camp’s population.

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The Community Cohesion Initiative

The Kakuma Global Shapers launched the Sports for Cohesion project in 2022 to address these challenges. This initiative has so far engaged 1,500 youth.

“When young people play together, they create friendships and learn about each other’s cultures. This understanding extends beyond the field, reducing tensions and fostering harmony in the community,” explains Dak, emphasizing that casual interactions through sports can often be more impactful than official activities.

Dak recounts several success stories, including one particularly inspiring example:

“In our area, some idle youth from different backgrounds were involved in criminal activities. We organized small tournaments for them on weekends, keeping them busy and away from negative influences. Over time, they quit these activities entirely. Their transformation also reduced community conflicts as the youth themselves addressed their elders, advocating for peace and unity.”

Another significant impact was seen at the community’s water points, a common source of tension, where the effects rippled through the community. Dak explains, “Youth from different ethnic groups started discussing football games while waiting for water. This interaction helped break down barriers and reduce conflicts. Even the elders noticed the positive change and adopted a more collaborative attitude.”

One of the most striking realizations from my time in Kakuma was the enduring misperceptions surrounding the term ‘refugee.’

Veronica Ruiz del Vizo, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Working on Solutions

A pathway to integration and education

Beyond the physical and psychological benefits, sports play a crucial role in the education and empowerment of refugee youth. Organizations such as the International Olympic Committee, UNHCR and numerous non-government organizations recognize the power of sports in promoting education, gender equality and social inclusion. Through sports programmes, young refugees gain access to formal and informal education, learn critical life skills and are empowered to shape their futures despite the odds stacked against them.

Sporting events and teams become platforms for cultural exchange, promoting understanding and tolerance. This integration benefits refugee youth and enriches the social fabric of host societies by celebrating diversity and promoting social cohesion.

One such organization is TIBU Africa, based in Morocco. Its founder, Mohamed Amine Zariat, who is also a Schwab Foundation awardee, explains, “At Tibu Africa, we harness the power of sports to support the integration of refugees in Morocco. Our programmes are specifically designed to include refugees irrespective of gender or age.

“For instance, we incorporate refugees into our employability through sports initiatives, equipping them with vital professional and social skills necessary for the job market. Our educational sports programmes for children welcome refugee participants, providing them with fun and educational activities that foster their personal development and social integration. These inclusive settings allow refugee children to interact with their Moroccan peers, thereby enhancing community bonds and mutual understanding.”

Children playing football in Morocco.
Children playing football in Morocco. Image: TIBU Africa

The way forward

While sports provide inspiration, challenges remain in ensuring sustainable support and resources for sports programmes in refugee settings. Investment in facilities, coaching and access to equipment is crucial. Veronica Ruiz del Vizo, chief executive officer and founder of Working on Solutions and a Young Global Leader, visited Kakuma Refugee Camp and shared her commitment to the project:

“Since visiting Kakuma in April, the plight and potential of refugees have become a central focus of my efforts. One of the most striking realizations from my time in Kakuma was the enduring misperceptions surrounding the term ‘refugee.’

“This experience has inspired me to work towards transforming how the world perceives not just the label but these communities’ ongoing conditions and resilience. Our initiative aims to change this perception by showcasing the rich talents and stories within the Kakuma camp, using football as a universal language to bridge divides and foster deeper connections.”

Soccer, deeply embedded in the hearts of many in Kakuma, has become a vital part of the community’s fabric. Over 500 football teams actively engage young people and adults alike. This existing passion provides a robust foundation for “The Hope Cup,” which refocuses global attention on refugees.

Ruiz adds, “The primary benefit of leveraging this popular sport is to reignite global consciousness about the existence of these communities and the significant challenges they face. By drawing this attention, we aim to influence both public and private sectors to take action.

“Public sector support could lead to better policies and more consistent funding for refugee needs, while private sector collaboration could drive improvements in living conditions and provide sustainable solutions.”

Ultimately, the spotlight on football in Kakuma is not just about enjoying the sport – it’s about using its universal appeal as a powerful tool to advocate for and support the refugees, ensuring their struggles are acknowledged and addressed effectively.

Sports represent more than just a game for refugee youth. For young people who have witnessed or experienced unimaginable horrors, engaging in sports offers a therapeutic escape. Sports embodies hope, unity and the promise of a brighter future.

Football coach and refugee Makal Wal says, “I have been displaced by war and conflict and sports provide refugees with an escape from their past. It offers hope that despite setbacks and trauma, any place and activity you dedicate yourself to can bring hope. It serves as a beacon of hope for young people forcibly displaced from their homes.”

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