City partners in Sunderland are joining the team to support the annual, national Amnesty International UK ‘Football Welcomes Refugees’ campaign.
The campaign was first launched in April 2017 to celebrate the contribution refugees and asylum seekers make, not only to football but to all aspects of community life.
Across the country, the campaign encourages football clubs and associations at all levels to organise events and activities to bring people together through the world’s most popular sport.
While Covid-19 restrictions mean many will have to be online this year, Sunderland City Council has been working with partners including Sunderland Association Football Club (SAFC), the Foundation and Beacon of Light, University of Sunderland and the city’s voluntary and community sector to organise physical games.
A rolling friendly four-a-side match with regular substitutions to give everyone the chance to play was hosted outside at the Beacon of Light sports and community hub next to Sunderland’s world-famous Stadium of Light yesterday (Tuesday 6 April).
It featured teams drawn from the refugee and asylum seeker community, and a team from the University of Sunderland where thousands of international students from all over the world study every year.
Civic landmarks across Sunderland will be lit tomorrow (Thursday 8 April) in the yellow of Amnesty International UK to support the ‘Football Welcomes Refugees’ campaign. This year the campaign runs for a month instead of the usual weekend to help allow as many people as possible to get involved.
Fiona Brown, the City Council’s Executive Director of Neighbourhoods, said: “Sunderland is proud to support this national campaign. The campaign helps reinforce the international message of hope to all those vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution across the world, that there are places of safety and opportunity.
“Sunderland is a truly International, outward-looking city, with a history of sharing culture, trade and ideas across the globe. We have been proud to welcome people from all parts of the world into our communities for generations, and this has helped us create our rich cultural and industrial heritage.
“Football is a passion for people across the world. We’re delighted to be working with our city’s world-famous football club and using the tremendous sports and community facilities at the Foundation and Beacon of Light to host matches alongside our university and amazing voluntary sector partners.
“The teams symbolise the community cohesion we have here in Sunderland. All those involved in organising games show the strength of the support network in place to help some of the most vulnerable members of our community, including refugees and asylum seekers.”
The event was backed by the Durham FA and organised with the help of Sunderland’s voluntary sector including Friends of the Drop-in for Asylum Seekers Refugees (FODI), Fightback, International Communities Of Sunderland (ICOS) and Young Asian Voices. Players and the referee were joined at the match by one of the city’s most popular, famous players and seasoned anti-racism campaigner, Gary Bennett.
Gary made more than 350 appearances for Sunderland and was twice voted player of the season by fans.
He said: “It’s fantastic that we can get together as a city to support the Football Welcomes Refugees campaign.
“There are people and organisations working very hard across this and other communities, to promote the equality and anti-racism message and events like this help getting those messages across.
“Sport is a great way to bring people together to remember and realise that it’s the colour of people’s shirts and not the colour of their skins that really matters out there on the pitch and on the street.”
The annual ‘Football Welcomes Refugees’ campaign was launched in April 2017. This was the 80th anniversary of the arrival in the UK of a group of child refugees from the Spanish Civil War who went on to become some of the first refugees to play professional football.
Since then the annual event has grown with football clubs, community groups, football foundations, county FAs, and grassroots groups across the country taking part, putting on events and activities many having to be online this year to take into account Covid-19 restrictions.
Naomi Westland, Movement Building Manager at Amnesty International UK, said: “With the long-awaited return of outdoor activities, we are excited to see the commitment from the footballing community to come together and welcome refugees.
“Clubs like Sunderland are at the heart of their communities and football can be a powerful force for good, bringing people together and providing a sense of purpose and belonging. For those who’ve fled conflict and persecution and had to leave everything behind, this is incredibly important.
“It’s heartening to see football clubs across the country doing great work in their communities to show there is more that unites us than divides us.”