Do you remember the last time you joined with friends or family to compete in a game or contest? Maybe you teamed up and won. Or maybe you were on the losing side, but you enjoyed every second of the competition.
Competitive games and sports are an important part of community life. They’re one of the ways that children and adults alike can channel our emotions, maintain physical health, and learn important skills like cooperation and teamwork. We know that is true here in the United States.
But did you know that sport is also a cost-effective way to make a big impact on vulnerable communities around the world?
Building Peace through Sports
Refugee camps are places with people who have first-hand experiences with violence and war. In those contexts, organizations like Food for the Hungry (FH) use sports to change lives. Putting children and youth from different groups on teams together, playing toward a common goal, creates an environment for them to respectfully engage and collaborate.
Playing sports like soccer bonds them together, and united by a common vision and shared experience, people from different backgrounds, cultures, or ethnicities may be more accepting of each other’s differences. They can be less likely to hold onto racist assumptions. For example, one assessment of a basketball program in South Africa showed that participants expressed fewer racial stereotypes and racist ideas compared to children who were not part of the program.
“Sport has an unparalleled ability to transform, empower, and unify people. Involvement in sport teaches ambition, perseverance, and teamwork.”
– U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres
Sports also contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, supporting health and wellbeing for people of all ages, creating inclusive access to learning opportunities, and helping to empower women and girls.
Sports in Refugee and Host Communities
The sense of holistic wellbeing, understanding, and cooperation is of vital significance. It’s especially true in communities where fractures along ethnic, class, or linguistic lines. These fractures can create tensions and misunderstandings that even result in violence. This is particularly relevant in places that are home to refugees, living in areas already deep in poverty. These places might be far from city centers and may not have access to technology or infrastructure.
While refugees may receive an influx of resources, aid organizations may overlook host community needs. In places where host communities have histories of oppression or unmet needs, that inequality can create tension. The host community’s initial response of hospitality and generosity can quickly give way to resentment and hostility. This is especially likely when an increase of people in a region leads to resource scarcity and misunderstandings.
The goal is to strengthen positive relationships between refugee and host communities and promote the wellbeing of all. FH’s work in these areas includes helping both groups access work opportunities and food that will help them build sustainable sources of income and nutrition. But some of our favorite projects also use sports!
Sports for Peace in Ethiopia
Since 2018, FH’s sports program with Eritrean refugees has helped children from both the refugee and host communities build relationships. As they play on teams, they learn how to work together. They build good verbal and nonverbal communication skills. In 2019, 400 children participated in sports programs, learning soccer, taekwondo, and other related skills.
These children and youths include people like Birtukan and Michael. Both are Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia.
Birtukan, who has lived in the camp since she was two years old, used to be bored and unproductive after school. She now spends her free time making friends at soccer practice. And Michael is a young man who describes his experience on the young men’s soccer team as an “opportunity to spend our time investing in ourselves and skills for our future careers.”
In addition to the sports practices and games, FH sends social workers to the homes of children who participate in the program. With a focus on helping refugees and host community families live in harmony, the project has helped children and youth in Ethiopia access tools they can use to generate income. And ultimately, the sports program enables them to lead healthy lives peacefully alongside their neighbors.
Learn more about our approach to engage communities in transformative solutions to poverty.
Read more about FH’s work with refugees:
New Beginnings: Supporting Venezuelan Refugees in Lima
How One Sewing Machine Helped A Refugee Start Over
Three Hidden Costs of Being A Refugee