September 23, 2019
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Soccer and language lessons help young refugees integrate in Belgium

By Laura Zornoza

Brussels, Sep 13 (efe-epa).- On a soccer field on the outskirts of Brussels, a group of youths are kicking around a ball under the watchful eye of their coach.

Some have only been in Belgium a few weeks, and while they don’t speak French or Dutch yet, they all know the language of football.

They’re aware of the high-profile nature of their training sessions - standing in front of one of their goal posts are the secretary general of UEFA and Belgium’s migration minister - who are there to celebrate the arrival of the 2000th refugee to their club, Kraainem FC.

The club has welcomed refugees since 2015, when a project launched to help integrate unaccompanied minors through football.

The initiative was set up at the height of the migrant crisis amid criticism of a lack of European action over migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.

Four years and 2,000 minors later, the club’s director and driving force behind the project, Laurent Thiele, said helping these youths with their first moments in Belgium was the main idea.

“My wife wanted to host an entire Syrian family at home,” Thiele told Efe. “I told her we couldn’t do that but we’d do something even more important.”

Three times a week, a minibus stops by three refugee reception centers to take groups of minors to the club’s sports facilities.

Most of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, Thiele said.

Before making it onto the pitch though, the young athletes have to go to class.

In a room built especially for the project, they take classes in French, Dutch or English, taught by volunteer teachers.

Their new language skills give the minors the tools they need in order to learn about life in Belgium, as well as its customs and history.

The project carries on throughout the school holidays, when external organizations come in to teach computer science, professional training skills and civic education.

“Afterwards, the groups mix with our soccer teams and they all train together. It’s a way of integrating them within our teams for an hour and a half,” said Thiele. "And then they have a snack in the cafeteria."

This week, a 16-year-old Senegalese boy who recently arrived in the country became the 2,000th refugee to have taken part.

Some have stayed affiliated to the club and participated in weekend tournaments.

The club, which has 350 regular members from 45 nationalities, receives support from the European Commission through the Erasmus Plus program, the UEFA Foundation and several private entities in Belgium to cover its costs, some 100,000 euros ($110,725) a year.

UEFA’s secretary general, Theodore Theodoridis, told Efe the body was “very happy” with the impact of the initiative. "What we also like about this is that there is an additional emphasis given on the academic side.

"We are looking at the social impact, that's our role,” he said. “If somebody develops to become Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne, even better."

In the cafeteria after training, two youths were talking excitedly in English. Alli and Maan arrived in Belgium from Somalia three and four weeks ago, respectively. They admire Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens, two attackers on Belgium’s national team.

Though they would like to embark on professional careers, for now what they like most about being in Belgium is having “everything” at their disposal, such as a home and access to education.

In Somalia, they were living through a war that has been trundling on for decades.

Thiele is confident the project will keep running. “We can’t stop. Everyday 10 young refugees arrive in Brussels, what do we do with them? Do we leave them in the reception centers?”

Soccer, he believes, eases their integration into Belgium, whose national team has a dozen players who have at least one parent who was born outside the country.

“Soccer is a universal language.” EFE-EPA


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