Pope Francis sets a sports plan in motion to help refugees
The numbers in the refugee crisis are continually astounding. Not only the number of refugees, which is always growing, but the number who are being turned away. In the United States, President Trump has already cut refugee resettlement to 50,000 people per year -- less than half of the 110,000-per-year ceiling imposed by the Obama administration. According to a report in the New York Times, members of the Trump administration are currently seeking to cut that quota to 15,000 per year. A staggering figure considering that every 13 hours more people than that become refugees.
Here is where the power of sport can again come into play. I have given several examples in Part 1 and Part 2 of this three-part series about communities in the United States welcoming refugees through sports.
Aside from the Olympic refugee team, the greatest momentum to aid refugees using sports came from Pope Francis' initiative in October 2016, when he held the Global Summit on Sport at the Service to Humanity at the Vatican. This event, led by the moral authority of the Pope, drew more than 100 sports activists and sports figures who believe in using the power of sport to do good together for three days to strategize for the future. As Pope Francis said early in his tenure, "It's hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help."
A criticism I often hear about humanitarian and charitable organizations is that they do not focus enough on providing an environment in which refugees can be secure to address their own issues. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees' regional representative for Southern Europe, Stephane Jaquemet, told the delegates in Rome that "displaced persons need support in addressing three fundamental needs: to belong, to connect and to develop a [new] sense of personal and social identity. Sport can assist displaced people as they address all three of these needs. It creates a familiar environment in which individuals feel that they belong; it allows connections to those with whom and against whom we play; and it helps to develop a strong sense of self-identity with this growing social cohesion." An entire session was devoted to developing concrete, effective proposals to use sport to help refugees.
The problems refugees face upon arrival in a new country are often overwhelming. Food, shelter, medicine and water are, of course, huge priorities. Yet the Vatican Summit strongly recommended that sports activities among refugees be introduced immediately, before other issues are resolved, because sports immediately fill a void, build self-esteem and restore some sense of normalcy.
In order to achieve this, local and national sports organizations, including national Olympic committees, should be encouraged to advocate for sports within refugee communities because they have proven to have a positive impact on integration and empowerment for displaced persons.
The Summit's final recommendation on this issue was that national, international and regional sports stars should be used as ambassadors to educate the public on the refugee crisis and how sports can help. These stars can also be role models for refugees. A perfect example of this started during the Vatican Summit and is now having a promising impact. Representatives from UNHCR and FC Barcelona conferred at the Vatican Summit and discussed how the two organizations could build on the momentum of the Summit, which was infused and inspired by six principles: joy, compassion, respect, enlightenment, love and balance.
They chose to focus on child refugees, who make up more than 50 percent of the world's 65 million displaced people. The partnership between UNHCR and FC Barcelona coincided with a subsequent international forum in June 2017 to raise awareness and bring special attention to refugee children and how sport can help their integration and be a tool of positive social transformation. They created the "Sign and Pass" Campaign in conjunction with World Refugee Day, which took place on June 20.
FC Barcelona and Argentina national team star Lionel Messi said, "I am proud to be part of this important initiative in favor of refugees and hope it will help change the dramatic situation that millions of refugee children around the world are currently experiencing. Sign and pass!"
Supporters of the "Sign and Pass" Campaign can digitally sign a football online and then pass it to their friends via social media. When someone signs the ball, their name is added to the UNHCR's #WithRefugees petition. This is part of UNHCR's effort to get the global community to guarantee that all refugees can have a safe place to live, get an education and obtain work to support their families.
The international forum was chaired by Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Josep Maria Bartomeu, the president of FC Barcelona. They appealed to humanitarian, cultural and sport organizations, in addition to members of the business and technology sectors. Grandi noted that "the love of sport brings people together in a unique way. The passion and acceptance that comes from playing and supporting teams can dissolve differences. I hope this strengthened relationship with the FC Barcelona Foundation will pave the way for a significant improvement to the lives of millions of refugee children and bring communities together."
Bartomeu, said: "We feel it is our responsibility to contribute through sport, using it as a tool to achieve social change. With this alliance with UNHCR, we are not only launching a global campaign, in addition to projects on the ground, but we also aim to be a role model that encourages other entities and companies to get involved and participate in actions like this."
The FC Barcelona Foundation also announced the rollout of its highly acclaimed FutbolNet Program to more than 3,000 children in refugee centers in Greece, Italy and Lebanon. The program uses sport to improve social skills, teach conflict prevention and conflict resolution skills, and creates a climate to nurture and promote their social inclusion in host countries. Financial support is coming from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Integrating children with their local host communities will be a key focus of the program in all three countries. Many of the children targeted in Lebanese camps have been there for five years, and 70 percent are not in school.
The refugee children will be the beneficiaries of this wave of compassion and commitment as sports organizations help them believe in what they cannot see and rebuild their lives so they may once again aspire to achieve their dreams.
Todd Currie contributed to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.