Interviews

Sport from the Side-lines: Naomi Westland on Football, Refugees and the Power of Teamwork

Naomi Westland runs ‘Football Welcomes’, an offshoot of Amnesty International’s successful ‘I Welcome’ campaign. The latter campaign aimed to raise consciousness and empathy in British communities towards refugees in the time of the government’s ‘hostile environment’. ‘Football Welcomes’, launched on the 80th anniversary of the arrival of refugees from Spain who would later play professionally in England, gives refugees ownership of football programmes across Britain. The project has an express focus on giving refugee women a sense of belonging in this country. 

‘Football Welcomes’ was inspired by Germany’s ‘Welcome to Football’ scheme, which offered refugees the chance to play football while receiving food and German lessons. This simultaneously helps refugees to forget the harshness of their position whilst equipping them for life in a new world. English clubs participating in ‘Football Welcomes’ have autonomy over how they coordinate their efforts with local refugee charities, but often follow a similar model to the German one. Charities have knowledge that is “essential” for helping refugees, Westland says, but might lack the financial or institutional might of a major football club. 

Westland is delighted to report on the widespread triumph of the ‘Football Welcomes’ programme, with over 100 clubs of varying sizes taking part in this Covid-stricken year. She points out that this is a particularly significant triumph given that Covid restrictions on team sports were only beginning to lift in April, when this year’s ‘Football Welcomes’ took place. A symbolic highlight came when partner club Sunderland AFC celebrated together with local community groups and lit up municipal and club buildings in Amnesty yellow to mark the occasion. “We’ve never had that before!”, Westland remarked. 

Again, Sunderland are illustrative here. Westland tells me that the ‘Football Welcomes’ project was brought to the club’s attention via the local Amnesty International group but that the club then enthusiastically took up the cause. Using their Beacon of Light building, in the shadow of the club’s Stadium of Light, already used for community projects like helping adults to develop new skills and quitting smoking, the club has started running four-a-side football matches for local refugees. Former player-of-the-year and BBC Radio Newcastle co-commentator Gary Bennett has even gotten involved in running the games. 

As one of the first black players to represent Sunderland, Bennett is perhaps the perfect man to lead a drive to help refugees integrate into local life. In a recent interview Bennett gave to Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme, he addressed the everyday effects the colour of his skin has on his life. Bennett said that, sadly, the prevalence of racism in society means that “I wouldn’t call it suffering [from racism]. It’s something I’ve got used to”. Although Bennett may not have been a refugee, then, he certainly understands how tough it can be for a supposed outsider to integrate into new surroundings, having been intimately aware of the “feeling of being unsecure, unsafe, like you don’t belong”. That Bennett became a cult hero on the pitch and a fabulous ambassador for the club and city of Sunderland in the years since his retirement, in spite of this ongoing fight with racism, offers further hope to refugees and the ‘Football Welcomes’ programme more broadly. Bennett rightly told A Love Supreme that when tackling prejudice, “changing mindsets and making people think takes everyone”. This is precisely what the Amnesty project is trying to do.

Westland emphasises this “collaborative” approach. Only by creating what Westland terms “relationships of trust” between clubs, players, fans, local stakeholders, and, of course, refugees can the project achieve its goals to the fullest extent while changing attitudes in the process. It would seem that the call is being heeded. It is heartening to see how many women’s clubs have been involved in the project; a group once marginalised in the football community using its increasing profile to raise awareness for others, like refugees, who have often gone under the radar when they need help. Westland directs me to the recently published good practice guide which Amnesty hopes will encourage more and more clubs to pioneer women’s refugee football in England. 

This communal approach, which makes women’s football “central” to the project, means that all involved can learn from each other. In turn, this should improve provisions for refugees while also breeding mutual respect and understanding around a community which has often been the target of grossly unfair hatred. On the learning process involved, Westland uses the example of arranging a women’s game when refugee mothers might be expected to be, say, collecting their children from school. Unless clubs know this, far fewer women than might want to will actually attend. Failing to involve the refugee community themselves in the collaborative process that Amnesty encourages will make the programme considerably weaker. Such advice, which aims to get participating clubs to work increasingly independently to support their local refugee communities, is part of Westland’s belief that Amnesty International projects work best when they are “doing things with people rather than for them”. 

One of Westland’s key aims for the project moving forward is to “get fans involved much more”. On this note, Westland tells me of winning examples of ‘Football Welcomes’ where making local populations an integral part of the initiative has been successful. At Doncaster Rovers, for example, refugees have been invited to matches to play games against fans on the pitch at the Club’s Keepmoat Stadium. Fans have even organised  boot drives to get them the right equipment to play. Not only does galvanising the local community boost the resources available to the project, but helps achieve one of the main overarching goals of the ‘I Welcome’ project: to “create open, friendly communities to live in”. 

This must be an ongoing process. Work in the community on any issue cannot be limited to one month of raising awareness, and Westland hopes that the month of April will come to be an “annual celebration of work that happens all year round”. The success of foodbank donation centres outside football grounds before the pandemic is a model for such projects, raising not just funds and food for those who need it most but also, significantly, the consciousness of fans around a certain issue. That this particular project has defied the pandemic, too, gives hope to the likes of Westland, who want to use the mass appeal of football to make our country a better place for all. 

More than the fantastic numbers of clubs, charities and individuals getting involved in the ‘Football Welcomes’ project, then, is its effect on the lives of refugees across the country. At a time when, as Amnesty puts it, some in society are “dehumanizing” refugees, the power of this project is profound. Westland herself puts it best when she recounts that one refugee said that the project had made them “feel alive”. ‘Football Welcomes’ does great work in local communities; its wider power is that it is testament to the power of solidarity.

Mitch (he/ him) is Editor-in-Chief for Trinity term 2021 as well as a long-suffering Sunderland fan, keen runner and general sports obsessive. His other interests include indie music, arthouse cinema, and coffee.