‘Football is universal’: Why women in Danish asylum centres are taking up football

Volunteers at Asylum United organise weekly football training for female asylum seekers in Denmark as a way to help them keep fit, meet local women and break up the monotony of life in a reception centre.

'Football is universal': Why women in Danish asylum centres are taking up football
Asylum United organises football sessions in asylum centres around Denmark. Photo: Asylum United

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.


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.

Mette Mølgaard is a freelance journalist based in Copenhagen and Munich. Follow her on Twitter.

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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
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.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.