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Refugee football teams to play special matches against councillors and community to mark Refugee Week

  • Men’s team formed as part of Liverpool City Region Mayor’s pioneering approach to adult education
  • Team includes refugees from Sudan, Iran and El Salvador
  • Initiative aids language development, integration and wellbeing
  • Event in St Helens includes simultaneous women’s match
  • Women’s team made up of refugees and asylum seekers from Liverpool

Refugees and asylum seekers are set to play two special football matches against St Helens councillors and the community to mark Refugee Week.

Hope United, a men’s team formed from English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) students at St Helens College, will play a friendly match on Sunday, June 25.

At the same time, Comfort Angels, a team comprising woman refugees and asylum seekers from Liverpool, will play at the same venue.

In preparation, Hope United, which includes players from Iran, Sudan, Honduras, Senegal and El Salvador, have been taking part in weekly training sessions with St Helens Town AFC.

The training is part of the college curriculum and funded by Mayor Steve Rotheram’s pioneering Test and Learn approach to adult education, which provides support for innovative projects.

Organisers say the sessions have aided language development, integration and wellbeing of the players.

The matches are billed as a ‘Friendly Footy’ day of community and togetherness – and are part of the borough’s wider programme of events to mark Refugee Week.

Mike Bagshaw, community officer at St Helens Town AFC, said:

“It is a cheesy line, but they say football is the international language and that seems to be the case here. We hope they feel more welcome here, they are definitely welcome at St Helens Town AFC. Once people meet and talk to each other they become human – not just a news story – and most people are decent folk.

“We are hoping for a good turnout for the community game and a fun, family day with kids’ entertainment. A local café – Café Laziz – will be coming down with tasters and hopefully we will get the two communities together, mingling – because at the end of the day we are all just people.”

Following the devolution deal that saw the creation of the Metro Mayor role, the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority took responsibility for the £53m Adult Education Budget for local residents aged 19 and over.

Using devolved powers, Mayor Rotheram set aside around £2m in funding each year for colleges and training providers to test and learn new innovative ways of teaching and learning as part of the devolved Adult Education Budget which helps meet local training needs.

The St Helens football sessions were created to improve students’ English language skills but also to help them integrate into their new home and learn about life in Britain.

Katie Balmer, ESOL tutor at St Helens College, said:

“The idea of the training sessions was to give the students something to do outside of the classroom – wraparound care really. The sessions have been fantastic – they leave so much on the playing field and their physical and mental wellbeing is taken care of.”

Paul Piert, First Team Manager, St Helens Town AFC, said:

“We were asked to put on some sessions and we jumped at the chance because it’s what we do and enjoy – the development and the way the lads have come on has been brilliant.

“They have all got more involved as the weeks have gone on and they always have smiles on their faces. It might be an old cliché about football breaking down barriers but it is true. There is me and the coaches, local lads with broad accents – and then people from all over the world, including a keeper from El Salvador and people from Sudan. It has been really enjoyable seeing how they buy into the whole thing and all the jokes.

“We use football to find common ground, help them strike up new relationships and we learn from each other. For the first couple of weeks they were bringing us food from their countries – it is just a nice vibe, a nice environment.

“We have been told that we are saving lives, because some of these people have lost everything. It is something so simple – giving your time up for people – but makes somebody’s life different. It might sound dramatic but that is the feedback we were getting from the council and the college. It is touching to us that we are having that effect on people.”

Former ESOL student Caleb, a former semi-professional footballer who came to the UK from El Salvador who is now studying a Level 2 Diploma in Digital Technology, said:

“It’s a really fun session and my team mates are great. Hope United is like a family. The name is because we are all from a lot of different countries and we are hoping to achieve a great future here and the best way to make it is by being united.”

Current ESOL student, Dana Dana, who came to the UK from Iran, said:

“We really enjoy the classes and the training sessions. The people at the college and the club have been great with us. We are sometimes in a bad situation thinking about things back home and our families but things like this, and the event on Sunday, help by making us happy.”

The men’s and women’s matches take place at Ruskin Sports Village on Sunday, June 25 at 3pm.

There will be rolling substitutions and people are welcome to come along and join in.

The matches are part of St Helens Borough’s wider Refugee Week events programme, held every year to highlight the contributions, creativity and resilience of displaced people.

This year it features a grand Communities Together event in St Helens town centre, showcasing art, music, dance, food, workshops and performances, organised by St Helens Borough Council’s Refugee Resettlement Service.

The Communities Together event will be held at Parish Church, Church Square from 11am-5pm on Saturday 24 June.

Councillor David Baines, , Leader at St Helens Borough Council and Deputy Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said:

“Our borough has provided a home for many people seeking safety for themselves and their families and will continue to do so. But it’s also vital that we all make efforts to show compassion and understanding, to further break down barriers between neighbours from different backgrounds.

“We hope that during Refugee Week and beyond, you’ll join us in celebrating the resilience and contributions of those who come to our borough in the greatest need, and go the extra mile to learn about the different cultures of our neighbours that make up the fabric of our community.”

Cllr Ian Maher, Leader of Sefton Council and Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Portfolio Holder for Employment, Education and Skills, said:

“This event on Sunday is a great way to celebrate refugees and it is so important that we bring communities together to develop a shared understanding

“The Test and Learn initiative to help refugees improve their English and assimilate into life in Britain is a great example of how innovative approaches to funding education can deliver practical results and also spread social value across the region.”