This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
One Monday afternoon, someone knocked on the door to Afifa Alqhadev’s room.
“Do you want to play football with us today?”, a young woman asked.
Alqhadev said no. She did not like football. It was a man’s sport, and she had never tried it before.
“But then she told me to come anyway. And it was nice,” Alqhadev says.
Afifa Alqhadev is 46 years old. She comes from Syria, but now she lives at Sandholm, an asylum centre north of Copenhagen in Denmark, with her husband and their two kids. This is their home now. For how long they do not yet know, but at least while their case is being processed by Danish authorities.
In the first nine months of this year 1,137 people applied for asylum in Denmark. Like Alqhadev, many of them are from Syria. Upon reaching Denmark and applying for residence they are housed in shelters where they can remain for many months while waiting for their future to be decided.
This is why Asylum United decided to organise football training at asylum centres around Denmark. Since 2012, the group’s volunteers have knocked on doors weekly to ask women to play football – or just play around outside – with them.
One of the volunteers, Frederikke Winther, explains that Asylum United aims to create a social community for the women to thrive better both physically and psychologically.
“We just want to give the women an hour of something different than what they are used to at the asylum centre. We want to create a community, where the women can meet and have a good time together. A haven. We are their friends, someone coming to help them out in a tough environment, talking with them about how they are feeling, and then we start to get to know their kids,” Winther says.
Asylum United targets women and girls aged 15 and up because there are not yet many activities for this group at asylum centres, the association says, and this group can sometimes be difficult to engage in such activities due to religious or cultural norms. To help address that, the volunteers are all women as well.
“I experience at trainings that the women start to talk with each other, about their lives but also about their life at the asylum centre, some of them for the first time. I see how the women get a whole new energy and a smile on their face,” says Winther.
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According to the Danish Red Cross, asylum seekers’ life circumstances make them an especially vulnerable group. Many suffer from stress and trauma, both from the experiences they have fled and the flight itself. When living in an asylum centre they have little control over their lives, which can lead to loss of motivation.
Activities organised by volunteers are therefore highly appreciated, says Tanja Karsten, who is a volunteer coordinator for the Red Cross at Sandholm, the largest reception centre in Denmark. She says that playing football helps women forget about their worries, even just for a short time.
“Asylum United creates a community, where the women are able to forget what they are coming from. It is a break in a chaotic life. Even though the women come from different countries and have different backgrounds, they find something in common. It is a great activity and it is good that the women [in Asylum United] come out here to play with the women [at Sandholm] and show them that football is many things,” she says.
“Of course it can be transgressive to kick a ball for the first time, if you are not that good. But then you find out that the others are not that good either and you can laugh about it every time you cannot hit the ball. The women quickly figure out that it is just about having fun. This is a space for them to meet with others and create a community at Sandholm while living here.”
Asylum centres are often dependent on volunteers to support residents in their asylum process, according to the Red Cross, which runs the Sandholm centre.
But it is crucial that volunteers meet asylum seekers at eye level instead of pitying them, so they can be bridge-builders between them and Danish society.
“And then, when the women are back at the centre afterwards, they meet each other and can say hi while laughing and ask ‘can you remember?’ It does not matter where you come from, this is a community, where all women are at the same level,” says Karsten, who calls Asylum United’s initiative “a success”.
That’s not because all women at Sandholm participate in the afternoon football sessions. Often just a few do, or up to ten on a good day. Success is not measured in quantity, by how many women show up, but in quality: by how it affects the women who do.
'I hope I can play everyday'
For many women at the asylum centres football is considered a man’s sport and it is often their first time playing. Still, some of them are willing to try it out when Asylum United once a week knocks on doors to ask them if they want to come out with them to kick a ball around.
Just like Alqhadev, some of the women need a bit of persuasion. But quickly they figure out how relaxed it is and that it is a safe space for them to let go and have fun.
“It is good for us to move our bodies. It feels very good,” says Alqhadev, who worked as a gynaecologist in Syria. In Denmark, she cannot yet work, and she spends most of her time inside the room where she lives with her family.
“I hope I can play everyday,” she says.
Alqhadev was not the first woman who had to be convinced before showing up on the pitch. Asylum United often has to explain that football is a woman’s sport as well – especially in Denmark, where the number of girls and women playing football increases every year, with around 69,300 currently involved according to DBU, the Danish Football Association.
Nadia Nadim, a former resident of Sandholm, was born in Afghanistan and now plays for Denmark's national football team. Photo: John Thys/AFP
The group’s approach is therefore to just invite the women to come and have a look, share some fruits and snacks, and meet the other women. And then it often results in the women wanting to play themselves next time.
According to Professor Bjarne Ibsen, head of the University of Southern Denmark’s Centre for Sports, Health and Civil Society, the initiative is interesting, but he emphasises that it is important to be aware of the women’s vulnerability as asylum seekers in a new country and that their limits should not be crossed when playing football, which is often a new sport for them.
“My point is: try to not only think in Danish sports activities as they can be unknown to them and therefore less acceptable. These activities can be a problem in relation to the culture they are coming from. It is about building bridges, which becomes difficult by having activities they cannot identify themselves with,” says Ibsen, who thinks it is important to involve the women in planning sports activities to hear what they are interested in.
However, the approach of Asylum United is not to take football too seriously, emphasises Winther. It is just about having fun. The volunteers are aware that many of the women are not used to doing sports, so they make sure to organise sessions where everyone can participate.
“We use the ball as the playing element, and many think it is fun to try something new. It creates something fantastic. The women laugh about themselves, when they are allowed to try something new that is so radically different,” says Winther.
“We try to include everyone by focusing more on playing around than how well you kick the ball. This is never in focus. Football is universal, everyone can play along. Everyone thinks it is fun when you first get started.”
As well as Sandholm, Asylum United also plays football with women at the Avnstrup centre in Hvalsø, Welcome House in Copenhagen and Jelling asylum centre. They also organise social events such as trips to watch women’s football matches at stadiums together. The group is entirely driven by around 40 volunteers between 20 to 30 years old.
In 2019, the association was nominated for the 'Part of Something Bigger' prize by DBU for using football to make a difference to everyday lives. They were also invited to Denmark’s annual political festival Folkemødet, or 'People’s Meeting', to share their experiences for others to learn from.
When asked, Alqhadev only can name one improvement to the programme she would like to see: different sports. Even though she has now figured out that football is actually fun, she would also like to play basketball or do karate.