Dan grins when I ask how football practice was this morning.
“It’s definitely changed me as a coach. It’s opened my eyes. These guys were never gonna be part of my job. My job was always young people and football and sports. They’ve changed my life. My days can be hectic but it’s a session I always look forward to. All because I’ve been around a bunch of lads who’ve done nothing but smile. Something little to me makes someone else’s day. That’s an amazing job to have!” Dan’s talking about a new football group he’s been involved with, made up of refugees, asylum seekers and local people.
Day to day, Dan is Sports and Health Officer for LS14 Trust in Seacroft. Though his interest in sports came from being involved in football, he’s passionate about providing opportunities for young people to try out a range of sports, and progress to clubs and teams if that’s what they want to do. That vision became the Sports Leaders group. “If someone likes football or cricket, for example, I could look at what qualifications were available in the sport they wanted. I think coaching needs to be flexible enough to work with what people are excited about.”
Last year, he became aware that there was a growing refugee community in Seacroft, and that many of them were young men living on their own in hotel rooms. “As a resident of Seacroft, and doing the job that I do, it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I went up one day and joined the group that had already been meeting, and now I run it! I’d heard various reactions to the guys arriving in Seacroft, and it made me want to go over and meet them and understand better. As soon as I met them, any preconceptions went out the window. They just want to live a normal, safe and happy life. And they’re amazing at football!”
“Not only do I not speak their language as their coach, they also don’t all speak the same language as each other. But when you’re playing football, none of that matters. The game becomes the language. You don’t need words.”
Dan’s involvement is part of a wider effort from organisations and residents to listen, learn and understand more about our ever-diversifying community. Over 60 residents and local staff have already received bystander training; a 1 day course that gives people tools to think and respond as a person who might witness prejudiced behaviour where they live. Opportunities for young people to engage with voices and perspectives from other cultures and countries are increasing all the time, using arts, sports and creativity as a way for everyone to get involved. Learning new things can be tricky, Dan acknowledges, but it’s always worth the discomfort; “You’ve heard stories, but you’ve never witnessed it first hand. You can’t say you don’t like someone or something if you’ve never spent time with it. Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable, or put yourself in slightly awkward situations, to understand what other opportunities and other people are like. ”
Many refugees and asylum seekers will move between cities, either by choice or necessity. Every time they do, those connections and relationships with local people and organisations start again. Last week, several men Dan had seen every week were taken to other places – Durham, Newcastle, Hull – with little or no notice. What would Dan say to the residents and organisations in those places?
“Be patient. Understand that they genuinely have nothing but time. Instead of posting online, go and grab your dusty football boots from the cupboard and knock on their door. Spend time and get to know each other. You’ll all leave feeling good.”