When the Swiss Foundation for UNHCR, Switzerland for UNHCR, was created, one of its goals was to raise awareness on refugee issues in Switzerland. We believe that a great way to achieve this is to publish a series of articles highlighting various local initiatives and actors who act on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers. Standing with Refugees features the work of individuals, like you and me, who help people who were forced to flee their country and came to Switzerland.
In our tenth article, we met with Annina Maria Largo, President of the SPORTEGRATION organization in Zurich.
SPORTEGRATION was created in 2016 to bring together refugees and locals here in Switzerland. We use sports to make way for the sustainable integration of young people. We are especially committed to equal opportunities, as everyone can play sports, regardless of mother tongue, origin or social status. We provide a meeting ground for people to get to know others and learn from them.
We focus on sports. We organize all kinds of practice sessions and play many different sports to give people a chance to meet new people. At the same time, we run a partnership program, in which people get connected to locals on a one-on-one basis; this can evolve into a mentoring relationship, as needed. Thirdly, we offer basic math, IT and English classes.
As for sports, we have soccer, volleyball, basketball, various types of yoga, dancing, boxing, taekwondo, capoeira, swimming, running, and many more. Our approach is two-sided. Most of the time, we know exactly what our goal is and we plan and try and identify as best we can where the needs are what they look like. Of course, we look at what is already there and make the most of it. We want to be where the needs are, where no one is responding yet. Our other approach is meant for people who want to get involved, offer a class or other types of support. We assess the offer and see how we can integrate it into our activities. Often, it ends up becoming a permanent fixture in one of our programmes.
Sport may not be the only pathway to integration, but in our opinion, it is one of the best and simplest: sport is accessible, everyone can participate; it doesn't matter where you are from, what your social status is, or what you look like. Not everyone plays sports, but everyone knows what sport is, and can participate in some way. Among refugees, there are a lot of young and very young people, and we believe that sport is the ideal way forward. Of course, you can also bring people together through cuisine, music or knitting, among other things, but for most young refugees, sport is more interesting. They need to let off steam.
It’s a well-known fact that sport induces feelings of well-being; even if we can get angry and frustrated during a game, sport will bring people together. Perseverance, sweat, working together towards a common goal… all these are positive experiences when shared together.
According to me, personally, our experiences and the success stories of integration that we have witnessed motivate our involvement. When we look at the people who started out with us, who hardly spoke any German, who were unwell psychologically, there is no doubt that simple tools like ours can have a transforming effect. I always say that, in the end, people have to choose to invest their energy; it is the refugees, not us, who accomplish things, we are only here to let them use our platform. They deserve this opportunity. On days when we are tired and have a lot going on, there is nothing more encouraging that to get a phone call from a refugee saying they have found an apprenticeship or some other great news.
On the other hand, you can also be motivated by negative feelings like anger. I am often annoyed with how refugees and asylum seekers can be treated. Of course, you can't fix everything, but you can make a difference even on a small scale. So, the anger I feel, paired with all the positive experiences I have, has a wonderful motivating effect
It's difficult to choose just one memory. There are so many, some positive, some negative. Success stories are always wonderful to remember: 2 or 3 days ago, I got a call from one of our former participants, a minor I hadn't seen in about a year. He told me that he got an apprenticeship and that he was not going to be able to come to practice every day but that he was happy about it. When they can, most still come back from time to time to say hello – our organization is more than a sports facility, it's a family. In those moments, I realize the value of what we do.
Seeing what these young people go through is incredibly humbling. I'm not just talking about what they’ve already been through – fleeing their homes, living in fear, arriving in a new country… When they make it to their destination, they are often quickly overwhelmed by challenges and obstacles. But it is striking to see how, despite everything, they do not lose heart, and persevere, determined to get by, to find a job and to rebuild their lives. They don't break, they don't give up, and they always have a positive energy about them. And that's something really special.
We started a pilot project in Bern in November - we wanted to start the practice sessions earlier, but the first wave of COVID-19 put everything on hold. In the canton of Zurich, we would like to increase the number of offers. Being a refugee in a big city is not easy, but the further away you live from the city, the less opportunities you have to find free activities or practice sessions. So we want to continue spreading locally. It's always about reaching as many people as possible around us, but we also do not want to forget those who are far away.
I used to be one of those. In 2015/16, many people like me felt the need to do something. I did some research and came across all kinds of activities, like knitting clubs, but I don't know how to knit... I had been teaching sports for a few years, but it hadn’t crossed my mind that sports could be an obvious way to help others. All it takes is thinking a bit outside the box. Everyone can help: help out with admin needs, teach a class…As we say in German, “trying is better than studying.” When people contact us, I always tell them that they should come and see for themselves if Sportegration is a good fit for them. We also try to take care of the paperwork as much as possible - many people want to offer workshops or classes, but don't have the space or the right equipment. So we try to make things as easy as possible.
We are always looking for volunteers!