Long read: About four minutes
They say that football is a universal language. Whatever dialect you speak, the world’s most popular sport is one way to bring people together around a common understanding.
It’s why it is at the heart of FURD – Football Unites Racism Divides. The charity is a youth and social inclusion project based in Sheffield, which works locally, nationally and internationally to combat racism and increase understanding between different communities.
It was one of the organisations we supported through Sport England’s tackling inequalities fund (now the Together Fund) in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The charity used their funding of just over £7,000 to provide sessions over six months for refugees and asylum seekers in the city, a community disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“We did try to follow the trend of going online,” explained Sijo Joseph, Marketing and Volunteer Coordinator at FURD.
“When we are working with people who have been in the country for a while, we know the access to mobile phones and mobile data is pretty easy. But when you’re working with people just coming into the country, some of them have access to a mobile phone but they don’t have access to data.
“I gave a call every week to our clients and there were three main things that I did: I connected them with local food banks so they are not going hungry. Secondly, we connected them to local partners if they need help with counselling. And third was how can we help them if they have to isolate?
“When we came back in June, we started fresh again and we understood what people’s struggles were. All they wanted to do was to get out of the house and play football. We started it very simple, by just opening up the field.
“By the time the TIF funding was given to us, our current projects had begun and the participation levels were pretty good. But when the funding came in, we were able to put in more sessions.”
But despite their name, FURD doesn’t just offer football. The funding allowed them to provide yoga and cricket sessions, which encouraged more women to become involved – something FURD has had limited success with in the past. Such has been the positive response to the sessions, they plan to run more in summer 2022.
FURD were also able to use the flexibility provided with the funding to offer taster sessions and trial activities to see what worked, something which has not always been possible.
“We have a partner called Mears Foundation, which house most of the refugees and asylum seekers in Sheffield,” Sijo explains. “They had around 350 people at Sheffield University, and they were all quite inactive. Putting an activity on for all of them would have been quite hard. So we decided to run a few taster workshops at the University and then they could come to our facility if they wanted to be a part of it.
“We had around 35 people at the first taster session, and the most surprising thing was that 22 of them turned up to the next football session we held at our facility. By the end of October, everyone had moved out of the facility and most of those people still come to our session.
“They never knew things like this were happening in this place. They told us that it helped them to come out and use the gym, and be part of it. Because we provide lunch as part of our activities, they come because they know they can play, eat and then play again.
“The number of people travelling from Eritrea and Sudan to this country is quite high. Most of them are quite young, so football is a connection point. There are two activities that will attract them – one is running, and the other is football.
“The good thing about football is that it’s not just one person, it’s a community coming together. It helps them integrate with these people who are settled in the community, and to build new friendships. We call it a belonging group.
“Food is the one thing that brings out the conversation. After the football, there’s not much conversation. But when there’s food involved, people ask what food they eat in each other’s countries, and how they came here. So that gives them a purpose, because they don’t come out until that, and are dealing with a lot of trauma that they left behind.
“Secondly, being physically active helps them. Thirdly, building friendships and connections within the community help them. If you look into the number of small activities we’ve done in the last six months with the funding, they were bringing people together. It helped our clients and it helped our staff to get back to our routine of getting back to helping the community.
“With the funding, it helped us to kick-start some activities that helped our community. A lot of our projects are big projects that can last for up to three years, so you’re doing the same sessions every week.”
Not only did the funding allow FURD to provide for their community, it returned a sense of purpose to their staff, who had been on furlough and not able to do the role they are so clearly passionate about.
While the word ‘positive’ seems a crass one to use given the devastating impact of Covid-19, Sijo does believe some of the lessons learned from the opportunity to work in different ways – and with more partners – will stand organisations like his in good stead for the future.
“A lot of local charities used to be a bit “this is our project, and that is your project.” But I think it has come to a point where we have been forced to interlink and work together. We have always worked with people, but this wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances. They approached us and we had the capacity to do something, and they had the people who needed it.
“It would be wrong if I said it was all about FURD, it was about people coming together.
“Our partnerships are stronger. We’ve learned that it is a lot more important to work with people, than to work alone. That’s what this funding has taught us.
“Even when you see the number of activities that we’ve done with different age groups, it would be wrong to say it had been initiated by us. The concepts and ideas were ours but if it was not for the partners around us who are working with the people in need, it would have not been possible.
“We were all pushed to that kind of place because of the funding we got. The funding was much more flexible and that helped us.
“The best thing was being able to try out new areas. It was like a pilot for us and when we were doing it, we also saw how it benefitted the community. It was good learning for us. If you see it benefitting people and giving them a sense of achievement after being locked down for a year, that was a huge bonus. That wouldn’t be possible without the resources. It helped us and it helped multiple people.
“The partnership aspect is something I always believed in, but we’ve developed that further. Breaking down sessions really helps for six to eight sessions as opposed to three or four months, really helped us learn. Otherwise we are trying to ride a horse that it not really under our control.
“People were coming and asking, can we do more of this?”
For more information about FURD, visit their website.