The power of sport for the marginalised

The power of sport for the marginalised

23 June 2017 by David Stretton-Downes in Refugee & Asylum.

May 2016 - Calais refugee camp - a place with multiple names used by multiple people: The Jungle, Refugee Camp, The wreck, Jungle de Calais, but with one common fact – a home for many people dreaming and seeking a better life in the UK. A life that offers them and their families, fleeing from a life of war, persecution or poverty, a way out. “You are bringing a little relief to their stress.”

These were the words of a Frenchman working at the Calais Eurotunnel Terminal after it was explained to him why two cars full of footballers were leaving France after a day trip in May 2016.

Over the course of the next 12-months, individuals and teams from places as diverse as Lancaster, Oxford, Norwich, central London and the Americas joined with staff from Ambassadors Football GB to make day trips to the jungle camp.

The 6 May 2016, saw one of many trips made to ”The Jungle” by teams from all over the globe, seeking to help, bring aid and comfort and help nullify the poverty, strife and harsh conditions of over 7,000 people, a mixture of refugees and migrants, from countries across multiple continents.

The connection of language is powerful, and in a distant country far away from one’s home, a few words in one’s native tongue can bring much comfort. As so often the case, food also breaks down barriers and being able to speak basic Amharic, we were invited to eat in the tents of ‘residents’ from Syria and Ethiopia. Food from what little they had was prepared and we were able to share the hope of the gospel with them, many who’s families are rooted in Islam. Others brought guitars and gifting to sing worship songs whilst others listened to the stories of those fleeing from difficult circumstances.

The bridge into the community was always football. Taking a ball and kicking it along the muddied, makeshift streets always drew a crowd. The game would then move to a nearby field and up to 50 would turn up to play. The French government recognised the benefits when they arranged to use one area land to make a small football pitch, where every week groups from the camp would play.

With refugees and migrants seeking to gain access to the UK and other neighbouring countries on a daily basis, this meant that keeping track of people on return trips was hard. On one trip back, a group of what had been seven Ethiopians of men and boys aged from 14-28 had made it across to England in the month that we had been away, and so only three remained, leaving extra space and belongings in the extremely makeshift plastic house accommodation, commonly found in the Jungle.

Playing football, giving some kind of distraction from their circumstances, seemed to help relieve the tension that many felt as they stayed in the camp. The teams would always pray after playing and many appreciated that.

Playing football, giving some kind of distraction from their circumstances, seemed to help relieve the tension that many felt as they stayed in the camp. The teams would always pray before and after playing and many times we shared a word in between, leading to much questioning and discussion.

As Martin Bateman CEO, Ambassadors Football UK said: “We know that football is the international language of our time. To see asylum seekers, former military personnel and workers from the city of London all playing together in this broken place makes me realise that God wants us to share his love through this sport.”

At various times over the last decade, the “Jungle” camp made the news in Great Britain. By the end of 2015, it was clear that the issues there were not going away as thousands of men and women were staying there for as long as it took to board on the next truck, train or boat bound for the UK, some trying more than 3 times a day to reach their aim.

It was when the refugee crisis was at its height that Ambassadors Football decided to act and do what it could to help the situation. It has always known that football was a bridge into hard to reach communities.

Over the course of the next 12-months, individuals and teams from places as diverse as Lancaster, Oxford, Norwich, central London and the Americas joined with staff from Ambassadors Football to make day trips to the jungle camp with the intention of sharing the love of the gospel through sport.

The 6th May 2016, saw one of many trips made to ”The Jungle” by teams from all over the globe, seeking to help, bring aid and comfort and help nullify the poverty, strife and harsh conditions of over 7,000 people, a mixture of refugees and migrants, from countries across multiple continents.

The connection of language is powerful, and in a distant country far away from one’s home, a few words in one’s native tongue can bring much comfort. As so often the case, food also breaks down barriers and being able to speak basic Amharic, we were invited to eat in the tents of ‘residents’ from Syria and Ethiopia. Food from what little they had was prepared and we were able to share the hope of the gospel with them, many who’s families are rooted in Islam. Others brought guitars and gifting to sing worship songs whilst others listened to the stories of those fleeing from difficult circumstances.

The bridge into the community was always football. Taking a ball and kicking it along the muddied, makeshift streets always drew a crowd. The game would then move to a nearby field and up to 50 would turn up to play. The French government recognised the benefits when they arranged to use one area land to make a small football pitch, where every week groups from the camp would play.

With refugees and migrants seeking to gain access to the UK and other neighbouring countries on a daily basis, this meant that keeping track of people on return trips was hard. On one trip back, a group of what had been 7 Ethiopians of men and boys aged from 14-28, 4 had made it across to England in the month that we had been away, and so only 3 remained, leaving extra space and belongings in the extremely makeshift plastic house accommodation, commonly found in the Jungle. Based on this fact, managing influx of people in and out of the camp was practically impossible.

Alongside tea vans, food stalls and the police cars provided by other groups, the visits from the churches and Ambassadors were always welcomed. The last visit was made in October 2016, just after President Hollande had announced that the camp would be closed down before the end of 2016. The team were able to listen, talk and pray with young men who were anxious about their futures as they started to be taken to other parts of France to be received as refugees.

Our lives are a rich tapestry of experience and relationships. These short trips to Calais provided that for both those who were staying in the camps and those believers who went over in order to fulfil a mandate given by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation.’ And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.”

Jesus in Matthew’s gospel

We trust that the seeds sown will bear fruit one day for eternity.

I love the power sport has to break down barriers, one that few other things in this world has. Seeing the poverty, strife and anguish so close to British shores was shocking in itself, but nothing was more powerful than eating food and sharing Jesus with migrants and refugees who have nothing in the world’s eyes, but everything to gain in God’s eyes.

The Calais Jungle camp is now closed, however, to find out more about how you can get involved in using the power of sport to share love and peace in marginalised areas, please contact Ambassadors Football or visit their website

David Stretton-Downes

David Stretton-Downes

David Stretton-Downes was Head of Communications for the Engage 2015 campaign, which helped churches engage with communities during the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and is a Director of Vidan Lawnes, a creative agency based in London. Below, he recounts how Ambassadors Football took teams to the now closed Calais refugee camp ''The Jungle'', in May 2016 to do sports ministry. He tells us of the lasting legacy of this simple act has had on him and many others.

View all posts by David Stretton-Downes

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