“When I arrived in the UK it wasn’t easy to socialise. I didn’t know anyone; I didn’t want to talk. But I feel like I belong to the UK because I belong to Arsenal.
“Arsenal is part of the history of the country, so if I belong to Arsenal I belong to the country.”
Those are the words of one torture survivor who was able to start tackling the trauma of his past by taking part in Arsenal in the Community and Freedom from Torture football sessions.
“We are rejected in our own countries, but we came and found a new family that valued us, and gave us something that we never thought of,” says another torture survivor. “Once you are alone in your little room here, as an asylum seeker, you have no one around you, so Arsenal says, ‘Come, we are here,’ and you interact with so many people. You go to the match, you have 50,000 people around you. You know very well you cannot do it yourself, so somebody did that for you, somebody considered you as a human. It gives you that sense of belonging to a group.”
These powerful testimonies are credit to a partnership that began informally in 2010 and has only grown stronger in the years since.
How it all began
Freedom from Torture works with survivors of torture from across the world, most of whom are seeking asylum and refuge in the UK. In many cases, survivors are suffering not only from the physical and emotional consequences of torture, but also the emotional, social and practical consequences of leaving their homes, families and livelihoods. On top of that, they have to deal with the asylum system in the UK with minimal social or economic resources to draw on. Torture targets the whole person, and affects every aspect of life.
The partnership between Arsenal in the Community and Freedom from Torture developed into offering English classes in 2011 and, the following year, the football group.
Clients are referred by their clinician at Freedom from Torture, and the only conditions for joining the football sessions is that participants are interested in taking part and that it’s medically safe for them to do so. The sessions take place at The Arsenal Hub, a safe space that also gives the players a connection with the club and our staff.
Just as their backgrounds differ, so do the participants’ age, physical fitness and football skills – although, in this case, none of that matters. This is not a competitive arena. This is a therapeutic activity, with an emphasis on psychosocial wellbeing rather than on physical fitness or football skills. The focus is on providing a safe environment in which players can enjoy a healthy activity and strengthen their overall wellbeing: physical, social and emotional.
Each session comprises warm-up activities that emphasise teamwork and communication, short games and a cool-down. Another important element is that each session is delivered jointly by staff from Freedom from Torture and Arsenal in the Community to ensure we are combining the expertise of both partners. For the players, however, the sessions are an enjoyable opportunity to play football. The therapeutic elements are integrated into the sessions in a way that makes them “invisible” to an observer who is not already aware of this aspect of the group.
Players benefit in different ways from their involvement with the football group, but there are certain outcomes that have been identified consistently by both participants and staff.
These are both social and personal. On a social level, players feel more connected, and feel part of a group that understands, accepts and values them. They develop friendships and a sense of family, a feeling of belonging. They feel valued and special.
On a personal level, participants feel more positive – they are able to feel enjoyment and pleasure, and they gain confidence – and are better able to manage emotions, especially feelings of anger. And although the sessions are not about fitness, being active can help improve physical health and help torture survivors develop more positive relationships with their own bodies.
The group can also open up new opportunities, which helps the players develop a sense of hope for the future as they strive to build new lives. Until clients obtain their “right to remain” or refugee status, their involvement with Arsenal in the Community is limited to attending the football session. However, once a client obtains this, our staff start looking for opportunities to link them to other programmes, in particular our employability projects.
There is a general consensus that recovery from ongoing and complex distress involves three overlapping phases: stabilisation, trauma processing and reconnection. The football group offers opportunities for its members to work towards recovery through some key elements of reconnection, which include reclaiming a physical self, developing new interests, reducing social isolation and connecting with a new community, and connecting with a transformed sense of self.
It takes time, of course…
“This football we are doing, it gave me new life,” says one player. “When I left home to come here, I was struggling too much with asylum. I found out that people didn’t like me; maybe my life didn’t make any sense at all. And then I lost my happiness. So honestly, when I started to come and play football here at Arsenal, they gave me the value I lost before.”
“When I came to the UK my brain was full of old memories, thinking only of the place I came from,” says another player. “It takes time to start collecting new memories – now I dream about my time here, instead of at home. Coming to the football group gave me a starting point, a way to start collecting new memories.”
It takes time, yes, but this is time very well spent. Long may our work with Freedom from Torture continue.
“I was struggling to walk, let alone run” – read how the football sessions helped torture survivor Alex here
“Every day it gets better” – read how our work goes beyond the football sessions as Rion shares her story here
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