Photo taken on July 13 shows refugee children playing football in a summer football camp near Athens, Greece. A summer football program for unaccompanied children, aged 12-17, who are currently accommodated in shelters in Athens, opts to pave the way for greater integration between refugees and host communities through sports. (Xinhua)
by Alexia Vlachou
ATHENS, July 22 (Xinhua) -- A summer football program for unaccompanied children, aged 12-17, who are currently accommodated in shelters in Athens opts to pave the way for greater integration between refugees and host communities through sports.
The eight-week program, launched in Athens in June, is supported by legendary footballer Youri Djorkaeff and several organizations.
"I think in sports one of the best thing is that you do not need really to understand, to talk or to communicate, because as soon the ball starts rolling on the ground everybody understands the game," Djorkaeff told Xinhua after a recent press conference here.
"In my life I had the opportunity to give back to the people, I started my foundation in US, in New York. We started with small programs in different neighborhoods, because there were no sports at school," he stressed.
Through his foundation, he said he wants to ensure that every child's right to play is respected, regardless of the social status, abilities, faith, gender or origin.
During the press conference, he said that he knew from firsthand what is to be a migrant. His family ended up in France through migration. His father, former player Jean Djorkaeff, is of Kalmyk and Polish descent and his mother from Armenia.
"Two years ago, I was watching a documentary about the road of the migrants in Calais. I realized that in Europe there is a huge crisis and it was my wish to come back in Europe and help these kids," he said.
Greece remains one of the major entry points into Europe for migrants.
An estimated 23,500 refugee and migrant children are currently in the country. A total of 3,510 are without the care and protection of a family member or guardian, according to UNICEF's latest data.
More than 200 refugee and migrant children, boys and girls, take part in daily football trainings, as well as a series of educational and recreational activities each Friday throughout the duration of the project, in two locations in the center of the city, provided by the Municipality of Athens.
"It is really important for many reasons: for their social inclusion, integration, for them to get familiar with the city even by taking the bus to attend the trainings and get more familiar with public transportation in the city. They feel more confident and football provides them with empowerment. They have new friends. They have new dreams," Program Director of the Organization Earth, Katerina Salta explained.
For the thousands of refugee and migrant children who have fled their homelands due to violence and conflict, soccer offers a chance for them to be kids again, restoring a sense of normalcy in their lives.
"They have hope. They have new dreams. They experience their right to be a child, they have time to play. Something granted for too many children but not for them. They just have the opportunity to play, to feel like children and have fun," Salta stressed.
The global language of football unites all the children despite origins, religions and cultures as one of their coaches, Iraqi Abdullah Almullasulleman explained.
"From the first week we saw many different things about how they feel, how they play. At the beginning they did not know how to play, but now some of them are totally different. They respect, they listen to the coach, come in time," Almullasulleman said.
Through the program children learn about the values of sportsmanship such as, cooperation, leadership, and teamwork and at the same time enhance their social and emotional skills.
"You take confidence when you start to shoot good with your right leg and good with your left. You start to have confidence in your life too. And that is what it is important," Djorkaeff said.