Fri 18/03/2022 - 13:20

One of the aims behind the creation of the Swiss Foundation for UNHCR, Switzerland for UNHCR, is to raise awareness of the refugee issues in Switzerland. What better way to do this than to publish a series of articles highlighting the various local initiatives and actors who are committed to refugees and people with an asylum background? Standing with Refugees presents those people like you and me who wanted to bring concrete help to people forced to flee and who arrived in Switzerland. For our ninth article, we went to meet Martina Novotny, coordinator of the FLAG21 programme in Geneva. 

Standing with Refugees : FLAG21

To begin with, tell us about FLAG21.

FLAG21 is a non-for-profit association that aims to facilitate the integration of people with an asylum and migration background in Geneva through sports activities. We organise running training sessions every Saturday morning in the Parc des Eaux-Vives, in summer and winter, with the support of sports coaches who are passionate about sport and running and who are themselves from an asylum background. These training sessions are open to everyone, and we have many local people who come to train as well. The aim is to promote diversity in Geneva and social cohesion in general.  

What are your activities ? 

Our main activity is the Saturday training sessions, which include several levels of running, walking and yoga. One of our five coaches also looks after a group of children with whom he plays open-air sports games, giving parents the opportunity to concentrate fully on their training.  

Since last year we have added a walking group for those who are less athletic or who cannot or do not want to run, as well as two yoga classes, one open to everyone and another for women only. We share a small snack after the training, and in the summer when the weather is good, people bring food to make big picnics. These are privileged moments of exchange and meeting. The aim is also to allow people with an asylum and migration background to create links with the locals, which is an important step in their integration process. Friendships are created and there is a lot of solidarity and mutual help between members. Sometimes it is about distributing clothes and sports equipment, other times it is about helping with job applications, school support or administrative tasks. 


Another project we have created is called "Run for Work". It is about sports volunteering. FLAG21 recruits volunteers from among our members with migrant and asylum backgrounds to supervise or help at sporting events such as popular races. Indeed, the organisers of these events work a lot with volunteers, for example to set up the infrastructure, mark the course or provide food. We act as a link between the organisers and our members who are looking for a first professional experience in Switzerland. This allows them to practise French and to have a first work experience which allows them to obtain a certificate of voluntary work. We also plan small workshops aimed at transforming these experiences into real professional skills, and thus formalise them in application files.

In addition, we participate with our members in popular races by facilitating their registration, such as the “Antigel Run”. This helps build team spirit and allows us to be visible, with an information stand at these races to raise awareness. 

Why sport, why this form of commitment ? 

Sport is an excellent vehicle for encounters and social integration. It helps to transcend differences, allowing people from very different backgrounds to share a moment and practice an activity together across language and cultural barriers. Refugees and migrants face many difficulties in their daily lives when they arrive in an unfamiliar host society. Sport can facilitate integration into their new environment. Moreover, sport is good for your health: when you move you feel good in your body and in your head. Not to mention that sport allows you to evacuate stress and when you are in a vulnerable situation, this is all the more important. 

FLAG21 offers activities for all age groups and levels. ©FLAG21
FLAG21 offers activities for all age groups and levels. ©FLAG21
Why are you involved ? 

Personally, I am involved in this organisation because I consider myself privileged to have been born in a rich country where there is no war and where we have all the necessary resources to live, such as drinking water. Here, I have many possibilities and I can, for example, follow the training I want, do the work I want, live with whoever I want, be in a couple or not, get married or not, have children or not. My passport allows me to travel wherever I want, which is a huge opportunity, and I am aware that there are many people who do not have it. I think it is normal that those who have more give to those who have less, helping them in their daily life. These inequalities have always touched me and I can't imagine a life without getting involved at least a little. 

I started as a volunteer for the yoga classes in spring 2021 and since January 2022 I have been replacing the programme coordinator who is on maternity leave.  

Is there a particular memory of your time with FLAG21 that you would like to share ? 

At the end of January, I was ill, and I informed the group that I could not give the weekend course. Spontaneously, a girl who has only been in Switzerland for a few months and who doesn't speak French very well yet prepared a meal for me and brought it home after her French class in the evening. This kindness touched me enormously. 

In general, the atmosphere is great. People are so friendly. I'm often there very early on Saturday mornings to give the first yoga class at 9:30. Especially in winter, it's not always easy to get up early on a Saturday to go out in the cold and lead a class. But once there, even if it's -2°, people are well motivated and with a smile, waiting for you for your class. That puts me in a good mood right away, and you can't help but be motivated. It's a positive energy that accompanies you all day. 

From running to yoga, FLAG21's outdoor activities contribute to social cohesion. ©FLAG21
From running to yoga, FLAG21's outdoor activities contribute to social cohesion. ©FLAG21
What are the future projects of FLAG21 ? 

For the near future, we have planned mainly softer activities. We have already added walking and yoga to our programme, and we would like to focus more on health and less on sports performance, to be able to welcome people who are not necessarily sporty and motivate them to move outside. We would like to organise small outings in Geneva to get to know the different neighbourhoods, and nature walks in the area around Geneva. Another project we would like to carry out is a two-day camp in the mountains with our local members and pepople with an asylum or migration background, an integration camp, and to propose hikes and activities for the children during these stays.  

We also want to offer a training course to become a yoga teacher for migrant women. We have people from asylum for all our activities except for yoga, and it would be nice to be able to motivate a young woman to start this. Also, this year we would like to offer more workshops dedicated to sports volunteering to help the professional integration of our members. We are not short of ideas and we will see what we can achieve with our small team. 

What feedback do you get from participants about what these courses mean to them ? 

People often tell us that the coaches are always very motivated and that FLAG21 is like a family. The trainings give responsibility to the coaches and we support them in a professionalization (e.g. training in the fields of sport and health) and for them it is a good learning process. The bonds of solidarity developed through active participation in our training sessions have led to great opportunities for some, including apprenticeships, participation in "Horizon académique" and more. 

Tsegay, one of the FLAG21 coaches, stretches before training. ©FLAG21
Tsegay, one of the FLAG21 coaches, stretches before training. ©FLAG21

We can also see the progress of our members with the French language. There is for example a member who joined us last summer and who didn't speak French at all. We could only communicate with him in English or with our hands. And now he is doing much better in French. People are really motivated and come in summer and winter. Sometimes I'm really surprised that even in the coldest weather people are still there and are happy to talk to each other. Many members have been able to find friends and through FLAG21 have been able to connect with other associations and volunteer opportunities. For our picnics, we also invite other associations active in the fields of integration, migration, sport or health to present their activities, like the association “Genèveroule”. This allows our members to get in touch with other structures. 

What advice would you give to those who would like to get involved but don't know how ? 

In Geneva there are many opportunities to get involved in this field and to volunteer. The Serve the City website recruits volunteers for associations that are looking for volunteers for their activities. That's where I found, for example, volunteer assignments for food distribution to the homeless, or sorting out clothing donations. These are things that anyone can do without specific qualifications. They are very flexible in terms of availability, and these are generally activities that are done on an ad hoc basis. This can be a good starting point. But after that, I think that for an association like ours, a long-term and regular commitment is more fruitful and brings more in return to the volunteer. Finally, it also depends on what the person wants to give, either to be in contact with people or to do administrative tasks.  

At FLAG21, we would be delighted if we could count on a helping hand, for example, in administrative matters or in manning a stand during a race. We are always open to receive someone who wants to do a workshop in a specific discipline, or if someone knows well the area around Geneva and wants to propose easily accessible hikes.