Middlesbrough: Refugee footballers finding freedom with Club Together

Yonas Tesfatsion was one of the first refugees to feature for Middlesbrough’s Club Together team, and now he works as a volunteer with Boro’s foundation

“When you run away from your country, you have nothing.”

Worldly possessions, abandoned. A career in education, left behind. The pride of playing top-flight football in the country of your birth, cast aside.

Across the Sahara desert Yonas Tesfatsion travelled, from Eritrea and onward to brave the perils of crossing the Mediterranean Sea before continuing overland through France and eventually to England.

He arrived in Middlesbrough with nothing – no family, no friends, just the clothes he wore. The town, a haven. Its football club, a sanctuary from which he could build a new life.

A pair of football boots, a Boro shirt, a sense of camaraderie came with joining Club Together, a team of refugee and asylum seekers set up by Middlesbrough’s foundation in conjunction with local charity, Methodist Asylum Project.

“I wasn’t safe in my own country so I decided to flee,” 29-year-old Tesfatsion told BBC Sport. “I had nothing, just myself.

“The journey was very difficult, it was a life or death situation some times, but it is by the miracle of God that I finally made it here.

“We are different people from different societies, different cultures and speaking different languages, but football knows no language. You go and play. Here, we enjoy it.”

Tesfatsion is among the estimated 12% of Eritrea’s population to flee the country over repression and poverty, according to United Nations data and Human Rights Watch.

In 2015, when he escaped, the UN estimated around 4,000 people were leaving the country every month.

To recall memories of his former life in Africa and the journey it took to reach England remains difficult for the former physical education teacher.

But as he stands on the indoor pitch at Middlesbrough’s Rockliffe Park training base, located in the quiet village of Hurworth, in County Durham, he speaks often about “appreciating” where he now is.

I owe my career to being the son of refugees – Besic

Muhamed Besic, on loan at Middlesbrough from Premier League club Everton, featured for Bosnia-Herzegovina at the 2014 World Cup

In the middle of the pitch is Champions League-winner John Mikel Obi, flanked by three of his Middlesbrough team-mates, Muhamed Besic, Lewis Wing and George Saville.

The quartet join 13 Club Together players for training drills overseen by first-team coach and former Boro defender Curtis Fleming.

With every pass, laugh and handshake, combative midfielder Besic knew what impact he could have on the group made up of men from Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Germany-born Bosnia-Herzegovina international is himself the son of refugees – his parents and grandparents leaving their homeland before the Yugoslav federation disintegrated and war broke out in Bosnia.

“I know how it is making a new start,” Besic told BBC Sport.

“If my parents weren’t refugees, I wouldn’t be here. In Germany I became a footballer. In Bosnia I probably couldn’t have been because there are not the same opportunities.”

For Besic, his interest went beyond the mini-training session and football chit-chat, as he learned that English lessons delivered as part of the Club Together programme have helped get participants into college and set them up for volunteer work.

“You appreciate a lot of things when you hear stories and grow up like this, your grandfather telling you how it was from when you are small,” Besic said.

“My grandfather and grandmother needed time to find jobs and stuff like that. Already, after a year, these people have places in college.

“It is a big thing to get into college, to get a job. Even a day like this can give a boost in life and something big come from it, maybe in school or in football.

“People can underestimate the importance of making people happy in life.”

‘Safe and free in Middlesbrough’

John Mikel Obi was among the four Middlesbrough players to join in the Club Together training session to help promote the initiative and the English Football League’s Day of Action

Besic was the first player to shake hands with the refugee footballers as they enter the dressing room at the Middlesbrough’s multi-million pound training facility.

For those who escaped to England for new beginnings, the team they play with and programme they are part of has given them much more than just a day trip and opportunity to mingle with football stars. For many, it has helped establish a connection to where they now live.

Club Together, whose work is being highlighted as part of the English Football League’s Day of Action when all 72 clubs in the Championship, League One and League Two demonstrate the positive impact football can have in the community, was formed at a time that Middlesbrough was the only place in the UK to exceed limits on the number of asylum seekers taken in.

There was also controversy around doors in the city being painted red, identifying where asylum seekers lived – revelations that led to a government investigation, which found what happened to be “inadvertent”.

Tesfatsion himself had a red door, which was later painted a different colour. However, he stressed that he – unlike others – has never faced problems in the town.

“Here I’m safe and free,” he said.

Helping the city’s influx of new arrivals find that “sense of belonging in the community” is why Club Together was formed.

“Middlesbrough was getting more than its fair share of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Paul South, health co-ordinator at Middlesbrough’s foundation.

“As a charity we thought it was only right that we helped show how Middlesbrough was an inclusive and welcoming place.”

It started with asylum seekers signing up to play in an inclusive tournament in the Tees Valley area hosted by Boro, led to the club running health sessions and evolved into the programme and team it is now. They have even gone on to play in competitions made up of similar sides from across England.

“It has organically grown over three years,” said South of a programme that attracts around 40 men over a number of weekly sessions.

‘We see them as Boro fans first’

The Club Together programme offers participants an opportunity to improve both their English language skills and their football ability

Tesfatsion was at that first tournament, playing in a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Football boots, shirts and shorts were things he couldn’t afford and something Boro would later donate.

He left Eritrea a footballer, having played in the nation’s top flight – which he points out lacked the money and professionalism to compare to England – and has gone on to help give a team of displaced people an identity thousands of miles away from their homelands.

Quickly, his skills as an interpreter and background in sports education were put to good use.

“Yonas is a great guy and he has come full circle with the foundation,” said South.

“He is key in his community, has helped us as an interpreter, is a great organiser and gets the guys together for tournaments and games.

“It’s really fulfilling to see where so many have come from to where they are now.

“Rather than see people as refugees and asylum seekers we see them as Boro fans, and football fans first. To be able to see the joy and enjoyment when they come to the sessions is amazing really.”

Middlesbrough coach Curtis Fleming gave the Club Together players a tour of the club’s Rockliffe Park training base
John Mikel Obi was popular with the Club Together participants, as a number are fans of Chelsea – a club the Nigeria international helped to Champions League success in 2012


Source link : https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/47540021

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Publish date : 2019-03-19 07:43:13

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