Club Together and Justice FC
Photo credit: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
This story was written by Ed Aaron for The Guardian. It is being shared as part of IOM's Solidarity Through Sport campaign, under the UN TOGETHER banner.
Mutwakil Muhammad Ali beams, resplendent in Middlesbrough’s bright-red home kit. “They are giving me everything – shoes, clothes, support. I don’t know how to thank them for what they have done for me.”
A refugee who fled Sudan’s civil war in search of a better life, Mutwakil has been attending the weekly Club Together sessions at the Herlingshaw Centre in Middlesbrough’s South Bank since it began last year. Established by the Championship club’s MFC Foundation in conjunction with local charity the Methodist Asylum Project, the project brings together more than 30 refugees and asylum seekers to socialise, learn English and, more importantly, indulge in their true passion: football.
“This is my favourite session of the week. It’s been brilliant,” says Paul South from MFC Foundation. “The guys really enjoy it and are really grateful for the opportunity. Wearing the Boro kit gives them a sense of identity.”
In a city that became synonymous for the rising tensions between the UK’s existing population and the new arrivals in 2016, that is particularly important. The Home Office has only recently started sending asylum seekers to Middlesbrough again after they became a target for vandals after initially being housed in accommodation that made them easily identifiable by their red doors. An investigation last year found that more than five times as many destitute asylum seekers live in the poorest third of the country as in the richest third, with the strain felt most by local councils and charities.
The new influx to Middlesbrough since the end of last year has led to an increase in those wishing to attend the Club Together sessions, and South admits he has been forced to abandon English lessons for now. “We had a lot of new arrivals just before Christmas and the club donated 50 full kits,” he says. “Without being able to work, there’s not a lot of structure in the lives of the guys that come to our sessions – they go to the drop-in centre and that’s about it. So this is great for helping them to meet new people and integrate into society.”