A group of young refugees from across the world joined Greece's UEFA EURO 2004 champion and former refugee Dimitris Papadopoulos to talk about football and a lot more besides – thanks to a UEFA Foundation for Children initiative to mark Saturday's World Refugee Day.
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The refugees, aged between 13 and 17, represented five partner bodies receiving funding from the UEFA Foundation for Children for refugee-related projects. The 26 youngsters joined together for an online video chat, organised by the foundation, with Dimitris Papadopoulos – a former refugee and a member of the Greece squad that triumphed at UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal.
The conversation commemorated this year's World Refugee Day on Saturday, when events throughout the world will raise awareness of the situation of refugees and highlight the challenges that they face.
The young refugees who took part in the chat came from Kicken Ohne Grenzen (Austria), Cross Cultures Project Association (South Sudan), FC Barcelona Foundation (Greece), Association Football Development Programme (Jordan) and the Lesbos project with FC Cosmos and FC Aiolikos (Greece). They spoke among themselves and with Papadopoulos about their daily lives, their love of football and their dreams for the future.
Speaking from experience…
Papadopoulos was born in Uzbekistan, and his family returned to Greece when he was a young boy. He went on to forge a fine career as a striker which saw him crowned Greek Super League Player of the Year on three occasions. In addition to a much-travelled club career, Papadopoulos won 22 caps for Greece between 2002 and 2014.
He relished the opportunity to pass on his own experiences and answer questions from the youngsters about his life and footballing career.
“Having been a refugee myself at an early age,” he said, “I know first-hand the struggle, the agony, the hardships.
“For me, It was football that changed my life. It gave me purpose to move on, to become a better man.
“Talking to the young refugees, I tried to pass on the message that even when times are hard, we are responsible for our choices - and we should never give up on our dreams. We can be what we dream of.”
The youngsters' view
Jasemin, aged 15 – Kicken ohne Grenzen
“I really liked to talk to Dimitris. His story was very inspiring, because we kind of feel the same. Football can help you forget about problems and have a happy life.”
Francis, aged 16 – FC Cosmos and FC Aiolikos
“We had the opportunity to talk with other refugees from other projects around the world. It was a great experience, and we would like it to happen again. This event gave me fresh hope and courage for my dreams. Thank you so much.”
Ahmed, aged 13 – AFDP Global
“I enjoyed it a lot, because we talked with other refugee kids from all over the world. We understand all of their dreams, and we were very happy to talk with Dimitris.”
Godfrey, aged 12 – CCPA
“I was very impressed to meet a lot of youngsters from different countries in my first-ever conference meeting on a computer. I understand the importance of football in somebody’s life… especially when [Dimitris] explained how football changed his life.”
Fatima, aged 12 – FC Barcelona Foundation / Organisation Earth
"The call was so exciting and enjoyable. What we need in this world is more kindness and helping each other if our friends are in difficult situations. And we can make a better life if we all help each other."
Background: What is World Refugee Day?
World Refugee Day is an international day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees worldwide, and takes place every year on 20 June. The occasion, which began in 2001, is especially dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of millions of refugees and displaced persons who may be without food or shelter as a result of, among other things, conflict or persecution.
Facts and figures
UNHCR figures show that at the end of 2019, at least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.
United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) statement: celebrating refugees' courage
"[World Refugee Day] celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. World Refugee Day is an occasion to build empathy and understanding for their plight and to recognise their resilience in rebuilding their lives."
Every Action Counts
The theme of this year's World Refugee Day is “Every Action Counts”, and comes at a time of increased forced displacement, as well as dramatic social change brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNHCR and its partners have been reinforcing their efforts to protect millions of refugees and other forcibly displaced and stateless people.
UEFA and refugees
Football has the power to act as a massive social force, and strives to make an enormous contribution to helping people, young and old, to overcome problems and face the future with greater optimism.
UEFA has been addressing the plight of refugees for a number of years, putting different measures in place, and using football as a vehicle for change.
Through supporting socio-educational and sports projects in Europe and beyond, the UEFA Foundation for Children seeks to help improve the living conditions of refugee children, as well as their dignity and respect for their fundamental rights.
UEFA Foundation for Children general secretary Urs Kluser:
"For young refugees, football gives them the chance to cope with a difficult situation and to realise their full potential.
"Together, with our partner organisations and with everyone who loves football, the sport has a real opportunity to have a positive impact on these young people and the host communities. It is one of the successful ways to help them to get adjusted to a new life."
Which refugee projects are supported by the UEFA Foundation for Children?
The UEFA Foundation for Children currently funds 24 refugee projects – 14 in Europe, five in Asia and five in Africa.
This funding helps the partners undertake refugee activities, using sport and football in particular as a vehicle to improve lives and bring smiles to faces.
UEFA Football and Refugees Grant Scheme
This initiative, overseen by UEFA's Football and Social Responsibility (FSR) unit, not only provides opportunities for migrants to play football. It also encourages European national football associations to provide training to develop coaches and referees, as well as important guidance and care for participants away from the pitch.
To mark the latest World Refugee Day, the 2019/20 UEFA Football and Refugees Grant Scheme winners have been announced. Six national associations – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Iceland, Romania, Sweden and Turkey – will each receive €50,000 towards integrating migrants into society through football.
UEFA and refugees: magic moments
2016: The pre-match ceremony at the UEFA Super Cup match in Trondheim gave the opportunity for two disabled child refugees to share a special moment with the Real Madrid and Sevilla teams ahead of the game, and escort the two teams onto the field.
2017: UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, who is also chairman of the UEFA Foundation for Children's board of trustees, visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to officially open a football pitch for refugee children.
2018: Following a series of knowledge-sharing seminars, UEFA published a collection of good practices on football and refugees, helping its member associations assist migrants through the world's most popular sport.
2019: Children at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which is home to more than 80,000 displaced Syrian refugees, received over 1,000 pairs of football boots following donations from fans around Europe as part of the UEFA Europa League Trophy Tour.
Final word: UEFA President and UEFA Foundation for Children board chairman Aleksander Čeferin
“Having had the opportunity to be personally involved in various projects, I have seen that football is an extremely powerful tool.”
“Whether it is in refugee camps across the world, the troubled suburbs of European cities or forgotten conflict zones, all the activities supported by the UEFA Foundation for Children have strengthened my desire to see European football assume its role in the social development of young people all over the world.”