Vital refugee women's football club Comfort's Angels faces looming cash crunch

·11-min read
Vital refugee women's football club Comfort's Angels faces looming cash crunch

By Rachel Steinberg

At no point during the horrific weeks of fleeing the Taliban did any of the assembled imagine they’d find themselves in a Liverpool hotel, clapping along as an effervescent former Spurs player taught them how to sing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.’

But as Comfort Etim knows all too well, the real picture for refugees and people seeking asylum in Britain often looks more like this – unexpected and sometimes surreal – than it does the familiar cycle of pre-departure interviews with foreign correspondents, weighed down by flak jackets and gravitas in equal measure, followed by a flash mention on the evening news.

In most Britons’ minds, that's where the harrowing journeys end: with clips of arrivals hall Home Office handshakes. Etim is the woman who steps in when the cameras stop rolling and officials loosen their grip.

At 17, Etim, the daughter of Nigeria’s first female football coach, thought she’d hit the jackpot when a man claiming to be a scout offered her the chance to play and study at an American college. Instead, she was held against her will in London, escaping after months only to find herself – with no money or passport – living under a bridge in Brixton.

“I was scared, I was confused, I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalled.

“Not knowing, when I was ever going to go back home and see my family? Am I really going to make it in football? Do they use the same terms? You know, like when I say juggle the ball, there are differences from where I’m coming from – so how would I be able to understand the language?”

Etim’s own luck began to turn when she made contact with a friend’s brother, who offered her a place to stay in South London. She joined a local team, where a chance meeting led to a try-out with Spurs. Etim arrived with no boots but still impressed, earning a spot on the reserves before moving up to the senior squad.

She left football in 2004 after learning she was pregnant, with only flashes of her elite past emerging in her new life as a mum-of-two—like the time son Ezekiel was in year five, and a ball rolled her way in the schoolyard. She “unconsciously” began to deftly dribble it, only to look up to see parents and pupils alike gawking in amazement.

QUESTIONS FOLLOW FIFA EVACUATIONS

Earlier this month, FIFA announced it had, with the support of Qatar, evacuated about 150 “members of the football family” from Afghanistan, many of whom were “in critical danger due to their links to women’s sport”, including members of the country’s senior and development squads, female match officials and coaches, and Afghanistan Football Federation General Secretary Fazil Mohammad Shahab.

But what happens next?

In the UK, the government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill, currently at committee stage with a report due November 4, has sparked protests and raised widespread concern amongst advocates.

Those include the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who this month released a 72-page document outlining its legal opinion, citing “serious concerns” that “the policies would risk the lives and well-being of vulnerable people.”

The UNHCR previously reported there were 132,349 refugees, 77,245 pending asylum cases and 4662 stateless persons living in the UK at the end of 2020. They are among a ‘record high’ 82.4 million people the Refugee Council estimates are forcibly displaced around the world.

Etim, who now works for the charity Refugee Women Connect, is part of that statistic and stressed that, despite the gargantuan figures, every single person arrives to their new homes with completely unique challenges and experiences.

“Not all of them have the privilege to get on flights,” she explained, adding: “[Some] have had a good journey, like, oh, you know, I’m moving to the UK, it’s all planned. I know where I’m going. [Their] fears will be different from someone who is forced to come to the UK.”

No matter how they got here or whether they’ve ever kicked a football, mother-hen Etim embraces everyone at Comfort’s Angels. She launched the football team—Etim’s squad named it after their matriarch—in partnership with Amnesty International and the Liverpool County FA in 2019.

It now boasts players almost 30 players from countries including Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Albania, Namibia, Ethiopia and the UK.

A July report by the Refugee Council revealed that the number of people seeking asylum in the UK awaiting an initial decision for more than a year increased almost tenfold, from 3588 people in 2020 to 33,016 in 2020, with the average waiting time between one to three years.

Etim hopes her Angels will, if only for a few hours, lighten the burden of what many describe as a dehumanising process. 

She said: “Football has given me the opportunity to learn English, make friends and socialise.

“So I thought about having a female team that would promote integration, empower women, and improve physical and mental health.

“The asylum system can be daunting and very scary. It could take years when people are in limbo. I just needed something to give them a safe space where they can just come for that moment and just forget.”

MUSIC IS MUSIC, FOOTBALL IS FOOTBALL

Which brings us back to the sing-along. Etim had gone to the hotel to invite the recently-arrived occupants to watch Everton play Birmingham in the Women’s Super League, a volunteer-run trip funded by donations. The children’s song, she explained, was part of her overall philosophy toward integration—and sometimes even player recruitment.

“Identify where the need is and go there,” she said. “Literally befriend them, build that trust, because they’re coming from a very bad place.

“And what you don’t want to do is re-traumatise them. So start off with activities that have got nothing to do with where they’re coming from and where they’re going, something very neutral to everyone.

“When it comes to music, when it comes to football, they are two things that everyone and anyone can relate to. And you can learn English. Playing football, you can say ‘pass the ball’, ‘run’, ‘kick’, shoot’, they’re picking up things. And you’re doing it amongst women that you’re comfortable with, and before you know what’s happening they’re having conversations.”

On another occasion, Etim found herself leading a group in a rousing rendition of a viral 2015 pop hit.

“Music is music,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what language it is, and everyone was doing the Baby Shark... do do do do do do!"

HARSH FINANCIAL REALITY 

Though each woman has a unique story to tell, people seeking asylum in the UK share one shocking commonality: they get just £39.63 in weekly support, pre-loaded onto a debit card. They are offered somewhere to live, but have no say as to where they’re shipped off—potentially far away from empathetic compatriots or family already in the country. 

Pregnant mothers are granted just an extra £3 per week, rising to £5 for a baby up until the age of one, when it drops back to £3 for children aged one to three.

They are unable to work during the decision-making period, and face further difficulty even after asylum is granted.

A 2019 study by the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) revealed a 51% employment rate for asylum migrants compared to 73% for UK-born earners. Asylum migrants were also, when adjusted for socio-demographic characteristics, earning on average 55% less per week when compared to UK-born workers.

Etim said: “One of the barriers we initially faced was transportation. You can’t expect them to use a day’s worth of meal [money] to buy a bus pass, and that is where Amnesty came in.”

Comfort’s Angels grew out of the charity’s Football Welcomes Community Projects. Liverpool County FA is one of five benefactors of £10,000 yearly, with cash coming primarily from the People’s Postcode Lottery, designed to create more welcoming communities through football for refugees and people seeking asylum.

The Angels’ funding goes to basics like pitch hire, transportation, water, and a coach who trades off duties with Etim, who frequently pays out of her own pocket for costs the grant can’t cover, often finding herself pulled in other directions.

Half the squad, about 13 players, are mothers. Etim identified childcare as another participation barrier, so practice doubles up as a creche, with children offered football lessons before their mums take the pitch. Recently, Etim herself entertained a collection of “little cuties” aged six months to 12 years while their mums trained.

Etim has big dreams for her Angels: she’d love to take the women on immersive cultural excursions to British landmarks, help participants with mounting legal fees, and help students afford university tuition—asylum seekers aren’t usually eligible for cheaper ‘home’ fees and have restricted access to government support.

But for now, she’d gladly afford critical basics. Etim didn’t know about sanitary napkins when she first moved to the UK, using tissue or fabric in her early British playing days. During one mortifying match, she felt a bloody tissue eke down her leg before presenting itself on the pitch.

She said: “I was telling this story and last week at training one of the ladies said ‘this happened to me.’ Apparently the sanitary towels she bought were not the best ones.

“So I want to be able to buy them pants that are washable, and get proper sticky pads than women can wear, because that period should not be why you’re not playing football.”

Nor should equipment, but many of the Angels can’t afford comfortable sports bras or athletic hijabs, though the squad will readily form a circle shield to protect the modesty of religious team-mates getting into uniform where facilities are lacking.

Their pitch has a single unisex toilet stall but no changing facilities, still better than some away venues to where they’ve had to make do in car parks. Etim was “really upset” when one woman decided she needed to go home after her headscarf fell off during a game.

She said: “If clubs can just make sure provisions like that are available, that’s what Comfort’s Angels try to do. We’re not there yet, but it’s a gradual thing.”

FUTURE AT RISK

Amnesty’s five Community Projects, which also include programmes at Aston Villa Foundation, Club Doncaster, Leicester City in the Community and Middlesbrough FC Foundation, could risk being cut entirely once the three-year pilot comes to an end next year.

Naomi Westland, who oversees the initiatives, would love to see work continue or even expand but, she admitted, “I don’t know at the moment.

“We’d definitely like to keep it going, if that’s possible, but at the end of the day it will come down to available funding and priorities at that time.”

Westland’s team, which will soon welcome a new women’s football officer, in January published guide for communities and clubs hoping to start newcomer-focused projects of their own, helpfully pointing out potentially unanticipated challenges.

For instance, it suggests, some participants who have suffered trauma or violence might be triggered by physical contact, or organisers might want to consider scheduling sessions around religious obligations. Some clubs, Westland realised, ran separate programmes for refugees and women, but rarely considered how the two might intersect.

She hopes the successful model of Comfort’s Angels and the other Amnesty-funded projects, alongside the guide, will encourage other clubs and their wider communities to set up efforts of their own—ones tailored to and led by participants’ input and unique needs, she stressed, rather than anyone’s imposed vision.

“Football defaults to men,” added Westland. “You have to be much more explicit about the need to engage women and girls.

“Women and girls have as much right to leisure, have as much right to participate in their communities, have as much right to freedom of expression as anybody else.

“But the obstacles are greater for women to participate. Football is massively unequal. And so, you’ve got to just tackle that inequality head on and make sure that nobody is being overlooked.”

It’s unquestionably an extremely hard and complicated battle—but one that can begin, softly and simply, with a song.

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