Premier League champions Leicester are one of the more than 20 clubs celebrating the contribution of refugees to football this weekend.
The Amnesty International initiative Football Welcomes marks the 80th anniversary of the arrival of some of the first refugees to play professional football in the UK, following the Spanish Civil War, at a time when the world has more refugees than ever before.
Children evacuated to the UK after the bombing of Guernica in 1937 went on to play for Southampton, Coventry and Wolverhampton Wanderers, among others – while the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal have current players whose families fled war.
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It’s the very first Football Welcomes, and Amnesty hopes it will become a key fixture in the football calender.
Amnesty’s Director Kate Allen said: “Refugees have made an important contribution to this much-loved game and to their communities throughout the years. We are delighted that so many football clubs are embracing this. They have a key role to play in helping to promote respect, understanding and integration.
“Eighty years on from the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, horrific violence is again forcing many people to flee their homes, leaving everything behind as they look for safety elsewhere. We’re very pleased to be working with football clubs to help make refugees who have come to the UK feel welcome.”
Participating clubs – which also include Everton, Southampton and Stoke in the Premier League – are promoting activities in solidarity with refugees by offering free tickets, hosting tournaments and organising stadium tours.
Leicester has welcomed refugees both from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s and Syria more recently, and the club that represents it has organised a match for people who participate in their outreach projects, as well as holding educational workshops in the community answering important questions about what life can be like as a refugee, and why people have to flee their homes in the first place.
Stoke striker Saido Berahino, who came to England as a refugee from Burundi, said every refugee deserves a chance: “I’m proud to support Amnesty International’s Football Welcomes initiative – it’s an issue that is so close to my heart.
“I grew up in Burundi and lost my father in the Civil War there. We had to leave the country in the hope of a better life, and although I was separated from my mother for two years, I eventually made it to the UK.
“I’ve been given a second chance in England. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve been given and the chance to turn your life around is something that every refugee deserves.”
Clubs in the English Football League (EFL) – including Brentford, Notts County and Preston – are also taking part, with the EFL’s chief exec pointing out that Gael Bigirimana, who moved to England from Burundi in 2004, scored the opening goal in the Checkatrade Trophy final this year which helped Coventry lift the cup.
Six of the 4,000 children who arrived in Southampton from Bilbao in 1936 went on to play in the English league, with many eventually returning to Spain to play for the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid – including Sabin Barinaga, who scored the first ever goal in the newly-built Bernabeu stadium in 1947.
Refugees continue to play a big part in English football, with former Bolton player Fabric Muamba having fled the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the families of Granit Xhaka and Watford’s Valon Behrami fled violence in Kosovo, and Dejan Lovren and Asmir Begovic’s families escaped the Bosnian War.
To get involved with Amnesty International’s work with refugees visit here.