Dr amanda wise & dr jan ali commonwealth of Australia 2008

Case study: Football United: Refugee Youth Soccer Development Program

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Case study: Football United: Refugee Youth Soccer Development Program

Initiative details

Organisations: School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Contact: Anne W. Bunde-Birouste - Convenor, Refugee Soccer Program, The University of New South Wales, NSW 2052 Australia

Tel: (02) 9385- 2591 Mobile: 0407-957-039

E-mail: ab.birouste@unsw.edu.au

Web: http://soccer.sphcm.med.unsw.edu.au/

Or Cliff Evers – Volunteer co-ordinator and coach

Tel: 0415-325-453

Funding: Currently Football United operates on approximately $100,000 per year. This includes cash and in kind support from:

- UNSW (85%)

- Mary McKillop Foundation, Sisters of Charity Foundation, Macquarie Bank Sports(5%)

- STARTTS and MRC’s (10%)

All funding contributes to the delivery of the programs

All staff are volunteers including those responsible for the day to day management and development of Football United.

Description of Initiative

This program seeks to assist young refugees in their immigration and integration to Australia by providing a supporting and enjoyable environment through a soccer development program. While the focus is particularly on youth, the program contains elements designed to contribute to building community cohesion among the different refugee communities, but also explores potential to bridge across different Australian communities.

The program combines a number of approaches that have had documented success such as the use of sport to bring people from differing communities together. Fundamental as well is the use of proven effective social intervention strategies which associate factors of personal development with social development, such as empowerment and life-skills workshops, and youth mentorship programs.

Football United has formed partnerships with various community organisations including Blacktown, Liverpool, Auburn Councils, STARTTS, Migrant Resource Centres, the Police Communities and Youth Clubs (PCYC) and Football clubs throughout Sydney, as well as establishing a strong base of committed volunteers. Through these partnerships Football United delivers weekly after-school soccer skills programs, vacation training camps, coaching and referee training, family gala days, a mentoring program, and ‘Football in the Park’ every Saturday for refugees and local residents.

This particular case study focuses on the ‘Football in the Park’ component of the program. Football in the Park is a Saturday football training and fun program where kids can get involved in training and informal mini-games, rather than participate in the mainstream soccer competition. A number of young players are Muslim-Australians, from Iraqi, Afghani and African refugee communities. The activities are co-ordinated by volunteers. In this case study we were interested not so much in the soccer players themselves, but the Anglo-Celtic volunteers involved in the Auburn and subsequently Blacktown arms of the project. These volunteers are young, working class, Anglo-Celtic men from the Maroubra area and Sutherland Shire. Our interest was in whether their involvement in this program helped change their attitudes towards Muslim-Australians. The case study was chosen as an example of an initiative which included Anglo working class men in a sport based initiative involving Muslim-Australians, but not explicitly aimed at ‘improving relations between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians’.


This is an innovative program based on a community capacity building model. Whereas other refugee soccer initiatives (see Auburn Football Cultural Diversity cases study) focus on providing one off funding support to cover registration fees, the Football United project aims to ‘prepare the ground’ for participation of refugees in mainstream competitions by fostering links and relationships between refugee communities, service providers and soccer clubs, and providing the training, support and mentoring to grow these relationships. The model is premised on the idea that it is not enough to simply provide funds for registration fees without preparation of players, and without ongoing support. In terms of success and challenges, our focus here, however, is on the experience of Anglo- Celtic male volunteers. The case study is primarily based upon an interview with one of these volunteers who had been nominated to represent the group in this study.

At the simplest level, their involvement with these young refugee players made the Anglo volunteers feel a sense of delight at watching and helping their charges play and enjoy soccer.

Damian: Um well I’m not really sure. I mean they took to the kids a lot and they sort of.. [say] ‘the kids made me feel good’.

Although not without its challenges, the program did appear to create in the volunteers a sense of empathy for the refugee experience.

Damian: They don’t really think about it like they never brought up that I’m doing my piece again for multiculturalism in Australia or anything like that. That wasn’t really a factor. [It was] the refugees thing, that they’re helping out refugees and you hear these people you know have come from difficult circumstances. … I don’t think it’s a big leap. I think for..Anglo men,.. that helping out the underdog is fine, that’s cool you know. Helping out the refugees is okay.. you know.

Whether this translates to a greater appreciation of Australian multiculturalism and more understanding and acceptance of Muslim-Australians in general is perhaps a more difficult conclusion to draw. However there was a distinct shift in attitude from a somewhat racist and assimilationist perspective, to an awareness of cultural difference and acceptance of Australia’s refugee program. This in itself represents a major shift and indicates that, managed well, there is potential for further attitudinal change.

in terms of changing their attitudes to multiculturalism, I think in some ways, yes. I think um, I think they understood some of the backgrounds that these kids … thinking African kids, you know they got talking to them.. they find that you know these kids.. Sudan and lived in Egypt and then from Egypt you know shipped between different camps and then you went to – eventually got to Australia you know being in camps for 7 or 8 years and they go, they suddenly realised what refugee means. That refugee did not mean immigrant. And sounds so simple but for these guys they don’t think about it you know so that [is] a real big shift for them you know they started going okay.. you know and then of course, when you did talk to them. whenever you did bring up.. political stuff…. you know especially around immigration it was like yeah refugees are cool… (OK)..pretty cool, cool.. they’re cool [they] can come here that’s fine…

Although challenging, an important aspect of the attitudinal change is how the process takes young Anglo-Celtic working class men out of their cultural comfort zone.

Damian: it was frightening for the guys, and really different for me and you sort of, you felt uncomfortable, which is interesting you know I think..this is really valuable.. so you’ve got to be willing to be made uncomfortable. And I’m not trained to sort of deal with it, unpack it….like when we went to the BBQ [with the kids and their parents] And a couple of [the Anglo guys] came along and there was an African barbeque and it was really huge, big.... and the guys were just on the outer… felt like they didn’t belong. … They had no tools to deal with it. And a couple of the [Anglo] guys came over and said G’day [to the African parents] and stuff like that but there was no sense - normally they can deal, they can find some way to joke around [but the jokes weren’t understood] so no one laughed. So they felt alienated…

Damian: …they don’t like it when people speak other languages. It’s just this strange paranoia they’re talking about them. I told them that, you know, they are probably just …talking about who is going to open the car door or something… you know like. So that. … Every- every little thing is blown out of proportion you know.

A challenge, however, is how to manage this discomfort so that it does not produce a defensive, oppositional stance and reinforce negative stereotypes.

Damian: It is a big step for them if you know what I mean. … so when it comes to ethnicity and those sort of cultural things they don’t really start to get close to that you know? They’re used to being the one at the centre. As soon as they’re pushed to the outer. it’s just uncomfortable and it’s hard …


This raises the question about the power dynamics involved and the extent to which issues of racism or ethnocentrism can be dealt with indirectly. Where an initiative is not explicitly about talking racism and building better relations between groups, there can be a problem in that these attitudes are not directly confronted and challenged.

A case in point is the very different relationship the Anglo-Celtic male volunteers had with the Iraqi team compared to the African refugees. There are cultural, social and political differences which configured the relationships quite differently.

Damian: They found the [Iraqis] had too much attitude so..it was different. They took.. to the African kids.. you know some X factor they were cool but the Iraqi kids… I don’ t know there was sort of this real I guess they just didn’t gel in the same way you know?

The Anglo volunteers tended to be more culturally at ease with the African young people who, in some ways, were not dissimilar to the ‘take it easy’ approach of these Anglo-Celtic surfers.

Damian: [The African kids are] sort of quite leisurely, sort of cruising round. They hold their body in particular way. They will just sit down, they won’t rush to do anything. Um whereas with Iraqis.. they were sort of quite in their face. I don’t know. It’s just maybe it’s a bloke thing I don’t know, they recognise some of this lackadaisical [attitude in the African kids].. whereas the [Iraqi] team were quite disciplined in terms of what they think you know.. and they deferred to – they never deferred to them, to the [Anglo guys] on decisions. They deferred to one of the older Iraqi kids and then he’d give them the nod sort of thing. The guy was sort of there you know, thought we’re supposed to be their father figures you know and they just did things on that.

There was a distinct sense that there was a power clash where the Anglo men felt, perhaps subconsciously, more comfortable where they were clearly in the more dominant position. There are also quite strong, competing masculinities at work between the Iraqi and Anglo males.

Damian: Oh attitude like in terms of the African kids they’d talk to them and they sort of, I don’t know they sort of… the Iraqi kids talked back more. You know be real smartarses. … Whereas say the African team, kids seemed to be a bit more accepting.

Damian: They would say really stupid things you know what I mean, like, and it’s quite racists remarks.. you know like.. pack of Middle Eastern guys who.. Bondi.. they tend to.. Bondi you know these guys you know, and er, I don’t know....they were like ‘@#!$%…ing move’… and they hang there and park. You know what I mean? And they’re much more mobile the Middle Eastern groups than the African groups so you see them out [around our beach areas] …. So there’s no competition there you know what I mean – cause when as guy’ll be going out they.. [inaudible] that’s cool.. they were pretty cool but they were quite deferential you know but then they’ll see the..middle eastern crew at the beach and stuff like that so they get a little bit um you know what the f… you know they won’t respect us here. So when they were actually around Auburn and stuff you seem them standing there…? Walking in the streets, like..it was like they walked they walk in this real blokey style. You know? (Yeh) which was really interesting and there was a lot of [masculine posturing] like they were saying oh okay, you don’t give us, (Yeah) at the beach you’re not going to really giving us enough space or treating us in this way so we’re not going to do it here. (Yeah) …

The Middle Eastern crew have been here longer, (Yes) had that solidarity and they had back-up. You know? So and the guys are intimidated by them. (Yes) they say they’re not but I think they are you know? They are intimated by these guys.

Also, cultural differences surrounding attitudes to women were present and at one stage did cause some conflict.

They weren’t too sure about the Iraqi kids and stuff and they weren’t sure how to deal with it and there was a situation with... one of the Iraqi kids who wouldn’t [play] with the girls. They wouldn’t play and there was this huge argument.. no.. ‘ In Australia we play with girls here’.... and the whole thing went down through the rest of the camp there was this huge divide, you know.

A further challenge was getting the parents involved in the program. This in itself is an important part of the program. The low levels of parental participation (there are a range of reasons for this) was not well understood by the Anglo-Celtic volunteers.

Damian: I tried to get the African families quite organised (Yeah?) But when they go and do stuff, the adults won’t mix with the other parents, they’re ‘shy?’, and it’s pretty intense for them …. like when I was there and then I’d play mediator and then I could keep the conversation going.. they feel comfortable etc but they daren’t, they’d sort of, if it wasn’t going they just refuse … they just wouldn’t go.

Not understanding the reasons why parental involvement is minimal can lead, unintentionally, to some resentment on the part of volunteers who give large chunks of time and travel long distances to be involved in the soccer program.

Damian: And they also didn’t understand how the parents, see what … the parents turn up with the kids [to drop them off], the guys are frustrated, say well why don’t the parents hang around you know… we’re coming out all the way here. [why should we do that when the parents are] not going to make the effort.

Organisational and Sustainability Issues

Indeed, the distance and time issues were the greatest challenge to the ongoing sustainability of this program. The volunteers in this case study (note: they represent only a small portion of the volunteers in the program) are primarily from the Eastern and Southern suburbs. It was quite a time burden to give up a full Saturday each week to be involved in the program.

Damian: …. there were times when we were out drinking you know and I’d say you know are you going come out tomorrow? And they’re like no, no no I’m too hungover sort of thing you know and when I pointed out to them oh come on then, you know the kids are relying on you, and they’re like ‘oh its like too much responsibility you know’.. they felt like they were putting in too much effort.. but if I take the kids to them it’s a different ballgame. You know so, you know if the kids come to us, yeah no no worries. ‘But it’s just so far to go. You know we go all the way out there [Blacktown] you know and takes so long to visit these communities and blah blah blah.’

A further point regarding sustainability and organisational issues relates to some of the cultural discomforts outlined above. In one instance, some cultural preparation and mediation took place to provide a bridge between the African kids and the Anglo-Celtic men which was positively received.

Damian: No you have [to do it] more carefully you know? What went well is when the local youth worker gave us some handouts on the different Sudanese communities.. ‘cause they’re very different people and some of the traditions and some of the assumptions they’ve made some of the cultural..[The guys were] unaware of where they came from and a bit of feedback about you know the conflicts they came from. That worked really well…that was really interesting too you know like they actually had something to work with.

Amanda: Did that make them a bit more confident?

Damian: Well it does.. for a while they were like you know.. they built the relationships.. if you help them. I guess just providing a talking point.

Carefully mediating these cultural differences can help to bridge some of the power differences involved. In this instance, it was reported that it provided a sense of empowerment for the African young people who were in a situation of ‘knowing more’ about something than their Anglo mentors. And in turn, rather than feeling alienated by the challenge to their cultural authority (as in the Iraqi case), the Anglo-Celtic volunteers were given tools to effectively engage with the youth.

Damian: Yeah and it’s just a talking point none of the kids would talk about it.. had – otherwise the only talking point they had was – which was why sport is useful. In that because of the soccer. When everything got bored they talked about soccer. You know? But this gave them…. it was just a different talking point and it gave the kids confidence because it’s something they knew more than these guys. And they were willing to learn, the boys were willing to learn, because that was something they knew... you know what I mean. So that was pretty interesting that sort of helped a bit, yeah.

Main Conclusions

  • This is an innovative program that aims to address some of the shortcomings of other similar programs.

  • It is unique in engaging Anglo-Celtic working class men in a situation that exposes them to cultural difference and moves them out of their comfort zone.

  • It led to more positive views of refugees.

  • However there were differences in the quality of relationship between the Anglo- Celtic men and the young Iraqi and African players. The relationship with Iraqi youth was a more challenging one, and possibly increased or at least reinforced negative attitudes towards Middle-Eastern youth, with whom the Anglo men had had encounters in their own beachside suburbs.

  • The more positive relationship with the African players possibly had to do with their more deferential attitude to the Anglo volunteers and similar cultural dispositions.

  • The more difficult relationship with the Iraqi young people had to do with a complex mixture of cultural differences, previous negative encounters with young people of Middle Eastern background, and prevailing stereotypes about them. Issues of power and competing masculinities also came into play.

  • Where some cultural mediation and preparation took place, the relationship was improved with the African young people.

  • Volunteer ‘fatigue’ was a looming issue, particularly where the volunteers had to travel long distances and give up whole Saturdays.

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