Displaced people don’t make the headlines anymore. That’s the truth that allows human beings to rot in detention centres. That’s the reality that forces thousands to live in dangerous ghettos. The displacement of people through war and strife isn’t exactly new, but the crisis which brought it back into the news was. A brutal war in Syria, coupled with continuing devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan, meant millions were forced to leave their homes. For many, murder and persecution were the only alternative.
So the displaced people fled – thousands of mothers, brothers, husbands and sisters in need of urgent assistance and with nowhere to go. First they were used, a flashpoint for a multitude of myopic political debates. Then they were forgotten, allowed to drown in overcrowded boats or be detained without dignity in isolated camps.
Greece was as vulnerable to the influx as any country in Europe. A decade of recession and political turmoil meant that it simply wasn’t ready for the flood of migrants arriving on its shores. Still, it had been a useful staging post for displaced peoples’ perilous journeys on to northern and central Europe. A deal between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016, however, meant that the Balkan route was suddenly closed off. Thousands of vulnerable people were left stranded in Greece without legal status, health care or even shelter.
A situation like this might seem hopeless. Aniko Football Club, however, is doing something about it.
“You’re always playing Football Manager and watching football on TV. Why don’t you do something with that?” Thomas Farines was struggling. After moving to the UK to study a Masters in 2012, he was having second thoughts about a life in academia. An avid football fan, he decided to take his former partner’s advice, obtaining a Level 1 qualification in coaching just a year later. When a job opened up at Football Beyond Borders – an education charity helping disadvantaged people through the game – he took it without hesitation.
Farines spent the next four years volunteering, including a six-month spell with the United Nations’ Office on Sport for Development and Peace in Geneva. He eventually finished his Masters, but there was no doubt what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
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In 2015 he met Dan Teuma, an aid worker and founder of the Worldwide Tribe, whilst visiting ‘The Jungle’ displaced peoples camp in Calais. They got along instantly, promising to find a project that they could work on together in the future. After staging a successful tournament in Dunkirk called the Liberté Cup, Farines received a call from Thessaloniki in Greece. “Dan was working with a charity there, organising a community space for displaced people outside one of the hotspots and he wanted to start football sessions,” Farines recalls to These Football Times.
When the displaced population was moved to a new location, the community space closed down. Teuma and Farines, however, were determined to stay on. “Dan and I sat down and decided we really want to continue this. The idea initially was to create an organisation that would allow several projects to take place in Thessaloniki, like a kind of hub for us to work from,” he says.
Teuma would handle the consulting end, canvassing interest and getting partners onboard. After a while, however, he realised that one project was proving more effective than the others. “The football was working very well,” Farines remembers. “We realised in January that the best way to manage our growth was to commit our resources to that. We paused our emergency response and knowledge-sharing operations, dedicating our energy to making Aniko FC a success.”
The goal of Aniko FC – Belong FC in English – is simple. Back home, displaced people had had jobs and routines, daily lives that prevented boredom and worry from setting in. The club wanted to give that back, to provide a semblance of normality in lives that had been ruptured without ceremony. Football, a game understood throughout the world, was a useful distraction from an impending decision on an asylum application or from frets about endangered family members. Often, it was as simple as just having something to do during the day.
“It grew exponentially,” Farines says. “We have three projects going on at the moment. Since December, we’ve been running football sessions in partnership with the Terre des Hommes and the Norwegian Refugee Council. These focus mainly on young men aged 15 to 30, and the main objective is to help the players develop not just physically and technically, but mentally too. We want them to regain confidence and, hopefully, move on to play for Greek clubs.” The sessions were so popular that, within two months, the number held per week doubled.
Finding a pitch in Thessaloniki was no easy task. A city that is home to almost a million people has 280 football teams and just 60 football pitches to cater for them. “Not everyone here wants to play football, of course,” Farines laughs, “but it made finding a space difficult.” That was until local giants Iraklis – themselves suffering financial problems – offered the use of one of their pitches rent-free. Aniko snapped up the offer, inviting refugees to come along and play.
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It’s not just football training that Aniko organises. The UK-based charity also organises regular trips to local games. Displaced people are given the opportunity to sample the Greek footballing atmosphere and to join in with the terraces on match days. “We also hold community events once a month,” Farines adds.
Football For All brings displaced people and volunteers together with the locals for a series of friendly matches every four weeks. Three hours of bonding, laughing and football help more pressing concerns drift to the periphery, if only for an afternoon. When the game finishes, the attendees are invited to share a meal and get to know one another. Every month, more people turn up.
“I’ve always been interested in finding ways of engaging the local community. I think it’s important for people to take ownership of local issues,” says Farines. “We shouldn’t always wait for the authorities or the government to help out with these kinds of things.”
What about the displaced people themselves? Does Farines think they have benefited from joining the club? “Absolutely. You can see in some people when they first arrive and they start playing, they’re looking down and not feeling confident at all. You see a change in that behaviour. We’re trying to institute ways in which they can communicate more with one another, because we can see that they’re improving and they’re feeling better and really enjoy playing and participating.”
Communication is a major issue, with 25 nationalities participating in the projects from countries that are often thousands of miles apart. “Sometimes it feels like we’re in the Tower of Babel,” he laughs. “That’s our main difficulty at the moment – how do we get more information about the players, how do we communicate with them better?”
The language barrier doesn’t seem like much of an impediment to enjoyment, though. “They keep coming back to our sessions and asking when they’re going to go to the stadium again,” he says. “The refugees feel part of a family here. It’s something different from the scenario of their daily lives at the camps or in isolated accommodation.”
“When I’m playing football I forget my background,” says Abdullah, a refugee from Afghanistan. “My brain is only on the pitch and I feel very good.”
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What about the local community in Thessaloniki? Have they bought into the project? “That’s one of our key aims,” Farines admits. Thessaloniki was one of the last parts of Greece to be liberated from the Ottoman Empire. As part of the deal agreed at the end of the Greco-Turkish war in 1922, refugees were exchanged between the two countries. Turks living in Greece returned home and vice-versa.
“A lot of people forget that heritage, but most families here have a loved one who used to be a refugee. There might be some resentment at some points, but most locals are very welcoming and really want to help. They want to participate. We’ve always been warmly received by the people here,” says Farines.
What about the future? Where does Farines see Aniko and its football project in 10 years’ time? “There will always be opportunities to use football to bring people together from different communities and walks of life,” he says. “We want to establish ourselves but we also want to reach a point where people here feel empowered. We want the locals and displaced people to take ownership of this project and to help it grow. We might come back every six months for a chat to see how things are going, but we’re not interested in working here just for the sake of it. We want to help solve the problem, to help promote social inclusion and positive attitudes towards displaced people. There will always be room for an organisation like ours.
“What’s happening here, unfortunately, is that displaced people are often put in ghettos. That’s not integration. It’s wrong. When you want to integrate someone you bring them into society, not put them in isolation.”
Aniko might be small, but they’re not about to give up anytime soon. “I feel that small things have the power to change the world,” he says. “Football is one of the most amazing tools because it is loved by everyone. Racism and discrimination only come from the fear of the unknown. If you don’t make the effort to meet someone half way, you live your life in fear.”
If football can be a part of that battle, says Farines, then it would be foolish not to use it. “Displaced people might have travelled thousands of miles from countries that have torn themselves apart, but they’re just normal human beings. They want an ordinary life, to go to work, to read a book and watch football. They’re just like you and I. I believe that the things we’re doing here are very powerful,” he concludes. “We’re helping people whose lives have been disrupted in a very real way.”
Aniko are barely a year old, but they’re already making a difference for people who would otherwise have nothing. Who knows where they or the displaced people will be in a decade, but one thing’s for certain: this tiny club will always be on their side.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45