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Refugee Week Special: How Football is Transforming Refugees’ Futures

 “The best thing that football gave me was a chance to get to know human beings. I got to meet people who suffered a lot, and those on the other side of society that had everything.” – Socrates, Footballer

A young player gracefully floats across the turf, skating easily around two players who are struggling to keep up with his skill and speed. He plays without fear, brave and single-minded. He has two options to pass, but chooses to dribble instead, running the ball too far and losing his opportunity to score.

But who is he? He is Congolese, he is a refugee, he is an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy living in Moria Refugee Camp. He is a brother, a son, a team mate, a friend, a player on the Socrates Football Project in Lesvos, Greece. He is a footballer. He is a citizen of the world.

Today’s session is one of eight sessions focussing on Teamwork. The group are working on “Attacking as a Team” with their coach, Socrates Football Project Founder Dan Teuma. Dan asks the player what he could have done differently in that situation. “I could have passed” replies the player reluctantly. Dan asks him why he didn’t. “My team aren’t as good as me, I wanted to score myself”. It’s a window into how some of the players view trust within the group, especially with players from other countries. It’s also, perhaps, a familiar response to  coaches around the world.

After a short discussion with Dan and the team, the player acknowledges not only that he could have passed, but comes to the realisation that he needs to trust his team mates, and that they will score more goals if they work together as a collective, rather than relying on individual skills.

At the end of the session, Dan gets the group of 35 players together, and discusses the concept of teamwork. They are encouraged to openly praise other members of the group, to verbalise why they like playing with them and what they did well, helping to build confidence and self-esteem. In the course of the conversation, Dan builds close bonds with the players, and the players learn to trust each other.

Over six months, the players will work on Respect, Overcoming Setbacks, Teamwork, Understanding Group Rules, Resolving Conflict, Developing Positive Attitudes, Competing Without Aggression, Confidence and Leadership. The players get two football sessions a week as well as a two classroom sessions to discuss the themes in more detail. Dan also mentors the young men individually, who over time share their hopes and fears, sometimes opening a window into their harrowing pasts.

These skills are developed through situational-based learning in a football environment. The footballing activities are specifically designed to give the players opportunities to learn and demonstrate these skills in a safe space, where they receive guidance and support not only from the coach but also their peers.

The football programming is fun, fast-paced and challenging. It is the hook which allows these boys, who have survived without their parents from ages as young as 11 and who are some of the most vulnerable refugees in Europe, to build a new family of their own. Socrates’ football curriculum is exciting, but its central purpose is to aid players Social and Emotional Learning. It builds those core life skills we all need as we grow up, but which are frequently stunted in those deprived of parental guidance or formal education for most of their teenage years.

These life skills are developed on the pitch, and will also help Socrates’ players to adapt to new situations and surroundings in their future. In addition to this, the project also creates opportunities for these young boys to play in local tournaments, allowing them to show the best versions of themselves to the local community. They play as a team, with dignity and good sportsmanship. They compete with local team, shaking hands and congratulating the other players whether they win or lose.

Socrates also offers a crucially important opportunity to create referrals to psychosocial support services and build connections with social workers. Many of these boys have experienced extreme trauma in their war-torn home country and on their precarious travels to Europe. They live with the constant threat of physical and sexual abuse in Moria Camp, where such abuse is rife. Yet uptake of psychosocial support is very low among teenage boys. This makes the interventions made possible through the trust Dan builds with his players so vital for their mental health.

Refugees all over the world are treated as outsiders by host communities, often misunderstood and unwelcome. Socrates provides these boys not only with a fun, safe environment to play football and learn new skills, but also provides a sense of belonging, acceptance, understanding and love.

The Socrates Football Project is a brotherhood, it’s a place where these boys can feel accepted, valued, loved, cared for. It is a fractured community united by their love of football. Its importance isn’t just in the skills it is teaching these boys now – it’s offering them hope and better equipping them for a brighter future. It allows them to be more than just refugees. It makes them citizens of the world.

“I am not an Athenian, nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”– Socrates, Philosopher

Nick Wigmore is co-designer and coach trainer of the Socrates Football Programme. He is a UEFA B qualified football coach with over 15 years’ experience, using the power of football to build programmes that help vulnerable adults and young people. Nick is also a Senior Consultant at social impact consultancy Athlead, and will be launching a community-owned football club in Camden and Islington in London, UK later this year.

For more information about how you can build meaningful social inclusion programmes for refugees or to support Socrates’ expansion to help girls and women with refugees experiences later this year please email

Get in touch with the SD Europe team via our Contact Us page. Read all the latest news about LIAISE here. Follow SD Europe on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more updates!


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