Podcast: “We’re changing the power structure of how we approach refugees in Sweden”

Posted July 03, 2020

By Rachel Payne, ISCA

In our very first ISCA podcast, recorded as part of the MOVE Beyond project, we talk to Save the Children Region West and RF-SISU Västra Götaland in Sweden about their unique project, which pairs one of the country’s largest humanitarian organisations and sport for all organisations and puts refugees in the driver’s seat of the activities. Their “self-empowerment movement” comes from first-hand experience and a passion for bringing refugees’ skills and intercultural knowledge forward as added value to their new communities. Listen to the full podcast below.

Save the Children project manager Adnan Abdul Ghani created his own pathway to employment and social change in western Sweden by turning life’s most challenging experience into an opportunity.

“My connection to working with refugees is from my own personal experience, as I was a refugee myself,” he reveals in our MOVE Beyond podcast.

“Five years ago I came to Sweden as a refugee from Syria. Having been in a refugee camp and experiencing all kinds of challenges, I started something different with my friends, other refugees, when we found out stereotypes about refugees and how people in society were looking at us. [We knew] the kind of power we have and how we could contribute.”

The opportunity he saw was not only something that could facilitate his own transition into Swedish society, but also improve other asylum seekers’ and refugees’ experiences, and help the local community. It relied on a positive outlook, initiative and determination to be involved in how integration initiatives are run.

“We started a self-empowerment movement where refugees contribute and self-organise and become part of the society. It was not only in that refugee camp, but it spread to all over Sweden and some parts of Europe with Save the Children and a project called REACT.”

When the MOVE Beyond project paired Save the Children with grassroots sport organisation RF-SISU and its social inclusion branch, StreetGames Gothenburg, it formed a new partnership that applied Adnan’s approach to a sporting context. Hanna Johansson, a project leader at RF-SISU/StreetGames Gothenburg, says the approach met a real need among the local sports clubs.

“The problem we saw was that very few refugees are included in sports today. Sports clubs are not opening up or welcoming refugees and refugees lack the experience and understanding of Swedish sports culture. So we aimed to start changing mindsets,” Hanna says.

We have empowered people with the right training

Adnan explains that both organisations decided from the outset “to give the power to the target group and include them in the decision-making and organising whatever we want to do for them… This was the goal, and at the same time to find out how we can work together more closely as sport and non-sport organisations – how we can work together with the target group, not for the target group.”

Their approach involved consulting refugees at an asylum centre in Vänersborg as stakeholders – not just the recipients – of the activities, appointing four pairs as leaders of four pilot activities, and offering their developed activity ideas to local clubs. They held a training course for the leaders and formalised their role as Intercultural Coordinators of Physical Activity (ICPAs).

“We wanted to give sports organising tools to those ICPAs and also to give them intercultural tools where they become an added value for the sports organisations,” Adnan explains. “So it’s not like the sports organisations have to go and work with those poor, disadvantaged refugees. No, we have empowered people with the right training.”

They hoped this would help “connect sports clubs to the refugees in the right way and with the right intercultural understanding”, putting the emphasis on how welcoming refugees as members or participants who can benefit the clubs rather than straining their resources.

“We divided the pilot money among the four teams,” Adnan says. “So the ICPA went to the sports organisation and said, ‘I have the training as a sport organiser, I have the intercultural understanding and I have the money to do a pilot. Do you want to work with me?’ Not the other way around. So we’re changing this power structure and how we look at and approach refugees.”

Adapting existing skills to sport

Hanna’s role as a representative of RF-SISU was to approach potential participants at the asylum centre through Save the Children’s existing network.

“In Vänersborg they had a very good support network for women, so I went there from the sports organisation to give a brief introduction about Swedish sports culture and pitch the idea that we had with this [project]. Two of these women turned into ICPAs,” Hanna says.

She used familiar social activities as an effective way to introduce methods of organising sports activities. These included cooking and dining together.

“The way you organise a dinner with these women, for example, the way they’ve done that a million times before – you invite people, you set a time, you prepare – is very similar to organising a sports event. So we’re just having the things we already know about and tweaking them a bit.”

Hanna, Adnan and Save the Children colleague Sara Stigzelius plan to continue working together on what Sara describes as harnessing “the psychosocial support of sport as a factor of wellbeing” and “looking into refugees’ capabilities”.

As Adnan underlines, changing mindsets is all about understanding and embracing refugees as active contributors to society.

“We can’t keep looking at refugees as a disadvantaged group, as a burden, as a cost or people who need help. It’s very important to look at that group as a competent group, as a group that can bring something to the table. We have to look at the added value that refugees bring to our countries.”

Find out how Save the Children and RF-SISU are creating a “self-empowerment movement” through sport. Listen to the podcast below.