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This ball was made to be played with in a war-torn country. What should be an innocent piece of sporting equipment has been made from materials that are resilient. I was told, “it will never go flat and it can’t be punctured with a knife.” The ball is being used by refugee children in Sydney, Australia, who are connecting with their new country through sport. They have not just arrived here, they have fled. These young players understand the advantage of a ‘stab free’ ball, amongst horrors that would be unimaginable to most Australian children. 

Sport has always been a great vehicle to break down barriers, and in a country where you are unfamiliar with everything from language to weather, forming a connection becomes easier when there is a ball in front of you. Football United are teams made up of refugees and people from displaced backgrounds who have found sanctuary, as well as soccer, in Australia. 

Creating ‘chances through sport’

Started by Anne Bunde in 2008, the organisation has provided a way to help refugees integrate ‘and create chances through sport.’  Shegofa, one of the coaches explained, “by the age of 12 you are told you’re not allowed to run. You can’t go to school, have books, and you definitely can’t play sports with boys.”

This program encourages girls to play, after getting permission from unsure parents. “My mum was scared to let me play football, then she found out my coach would be a woman which helped a lot,” said one participant. A ‘girls only’ team was created with an Iranian female coach. They were given uniforms and allowed to run on the field in their vibrant headscarves showing off their newly acquired football skills.

There are also Sudanese, Ugandan, Afghan, and Pacific Islander refugees on the program, bringing together different nationalities unified by one sport. Hakkas are performed before practice, a flurry of different languages can be heard, and some sessions have been modified to fit with prayer times. The program emphasises instilling life lessons critical to refugees who have fled untold horrors. They learn coordination but also resilience and communication.  

How Australia benefits from receiving refugees

The families are relieved to be in a safe country but know this is just the start of their journey in making new lives amongst strangers. They bring people together (that would never have had the opportunity to meet) and bond next to goal lines with cups of tea served after the games.  

I know I am considered a boat person, but I am a person. I want the chance to live a better life.

It’s extremely fitting that a country that prides itself on being a sport loving nation welcomes refugees through football. With the rising numbers of refugees entering Australia, there is a historical fear of resources, money, and services being taken from the rest of the population. However, there is far more to be gained from welcoming refugees and it has been shown that it would benefit the economy if even more were received.

A 2019 Oxfam report recognised that better immigration programs can add an extra $37.7 billion boost to Australia’s economy.  The increase would also sustain an average of 35,000 jobs a year and increase demand for goods and services by $18.2bn.

“I know I am considered a boat person, but I am a person. I want the chance to live a better life” says Mahsa, an Iranian football coach. She came here 9 years ago and now trains the next generation in addition to pursuing her studies. Mahsa never had the chance to play sport or receive an education and she is now flourishing with an opportunity to support her community. 

With over 7 million Australians born overseas, and approximately 60,000 refugees and 80,000 asylum seekers on our shores, Australia is far more diverse than people think. The Football United program is a great example of celebrating cultural diversity and helping immigrants and refugees experience more welcoming and successful immigration. 



Jessie-Lee Klass

 is a digital content expert hailing from the TV world of documentaries and factual entertainment where she has worked for the BBC, ITV and leading production global companies. She has produced award winning podcasts, VR, apps and grown extensive online communities with digital content. 

She has travelled and worked across the UK, US, and Australia and hails from a cocktail of Filipino, Austrian, and English origins. Jessie-Lee Klass