June 23, 2023, will forever be remembered as a historic day for the members of Football Freedom. It was a day filled with unforgettable moments as participants from diverse backgrounds came together for a one-day event hosted by Bangor University and the North Wales Dragons. This extraordinary gathering not only introduced the participants to Welsh culture but also provided a much-needed escape through mindfulness and the joy of football.
The inception of the Football Freedom Project occurred during the challenging times of COVID-19 lockdowns, when mental health issues, financial hardships, isolation, depression, and overwhelming uncertainty were prevalent. In collaboration with refugees and people seeking asylum in RAPAR, the project was born out of the collective belief that football could effectively address the needs of their community. Thanks to funding from Sport England through Greater Sport and the Manchester FA, the project has continued to uplift the community through various activities up to the present day.
During the week in Wales. Rahwa, one of the leaders of the Football Freedom Project, expressed her gratitude, stating, "This trip has been a dream come true. When we started the Football Freedom Project two years ago, we never imagined that something like this could happen. This day was especially remarkable as we not only had the opportunity to travel and visit Wales but also to celebrate Refugee Week in grand style. For most of our members, this visit to Wales is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am immensely pleased that we were able to make it happen. When we work together collaboratively, there is no limit to what we can achieve. A special thanks goes to Chris from the North Wales Dragons for his unwavering efforts in making this extraordinary day possible for us and to Chris Thomas from Football Humanity for his continuous support."
Shamim, another leader of the Football Freedom project, shared her experience of the day, saying, "It was a great day in Bangor. Football is a game loved and played by millions of people around the world. It can be called a universal game because every small and big nation plays it. Moreover, it's a great relaxer, stress reliever, teacher of discipline, and teamwork. For people seeking sanctuary and refugees, it's a great way to come out of isolation, make new friends, and engage in physical activity. When we received an invitation to visit Bangor University Community Group on July 5, 2023, everyone was thrilled. The list of nations represented was amazing, with people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Iraq, Angola, Congo, the DRC, and Iran. The coach trip itself was excellent, with beautiful scenery outside and people singing and dancing inside. Some people were sharing snacks and enjoying themselves with their friends. For some, it was their first visit to Bangor, so it was a great opportunity for them. We were welcomed by the Chancellor of the University when we reached Bangor University, The hospitality we received was amazing. The Chancellor gave a speech, and his staff answered our questions in a very polite manner. The atmosphere there was wonderful. Then we went to the ground to play a friendly match. Even though it was raining, people were willing to play. Some people had photographs taken with the organisers, sang Gospel, and danced. As a leader of the football team, seeing people enjoy themselves and relax made me feel incredibly happy and relaxed. People were genuinely grateful and happy. I hope we can have more opportunities like this in the future."
The Football Freedom Project's visit to the breathtaking landscapes of North Wales was a long-cherished dream for the group. It all started when Chris Roberts, co-founder of the North Wales Dragons, visited Greater Manchester with his community football team and interacted with the Football Freedom team. Witnessing the power of football in fostering connections, creating opportunities, and promoting sportsmanship, friendship, and admiration among diverse nations and cultures, the group became determined to turn their dream into reality.
Below, testimony from those who went to Wales speaks volumes:
Huda and her family shared their heartfelt gratitude, stating, "Our family genuinely cherishes the comfort and happiness we experience when we engage in football. We are immensely grateful for your assistance. This beautiful and meaningful activity has had a positive impact on us. We love football. We would also like to extend our gratitude to Ibrahim and Rahwa; they are truly exceptional individuals who consistently support us. Thank you very much."
Mahin expressed her gratitude, saying, "The trip was incredibly interesting. Thank you so much. I hope we will have the opportunity to embark on such a journey again. Please consider it."
Jila's friend expressed their appreciation by saying, "A big thanks for organising this event and for the warm hospitality shown to us by the kind people of Bangor. We are grateful to the University of Bangor and the Football Freedom Project. Our enjoyment during this trip was unparalleled."
Jila, reflecting on her experience, said, "For me, I didn't go to Bangor, but the journey itself was amazing. On one side, there was the sea, and on the other, there were green farms with huge sheep and cows. The university, hospitality, and football grounds were truly memorable. I learned something about Bangor University, culture, language, and history in Wales. It was very informative. I think everything was okay; I really enjoyed it. It changed my mood, and I really needed a short trip. Playing football with my friends in the rain was very enjoyable. Thank you for giving us that opportunity."
Christine shared her thoughts, saying, "The trip was very nice, and I discovered a lot of things in Wales. Many thanks for that."
Philomene expressed her satisfaction, stating, "For me, we were well welcomed. After lunch, we spent almost 45 minutes learning about Prifysgol Bangor University and their activities in Wales. Despite the threat of rain, we went to visit the football ground at Prifysgol Bangor University. Some women and I played, and we took souvenir photos. In short, I was satisfied with our visit to Wales. Thank you for giving us the time to enjoy."
Rachel summarised her experience by saying, "It was my first time in Bangor, and I enjoyed the very beautiful views of the sea and hills, as well as playing a bit of football in the rain. I learned about the importance of community organisations, like how Bangor University played a pivotal role in supporting the neighbouring community during COVID-19 or how RAPAR supports a diverse group of people and serves as a unifying factor for those far away from home. Improvements in funding could be beneficial for members, such as buying kits and training or playing sports to reduce isolation and improve well-being."
The atmosphere of the day was elevated by the captivating performance of Rose, whose soul-stirring voice filled everyone with inspiration and united them in a celebration of lasting peace. Rose enthusiastically shared her sentiments, saying, "The trip was truly wonderful, and I enjoyed the experience of singing the gospel. Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour!"
In conclusion, Chris Roberts reflected on a well-coordinated and organised event, stating, "Friday's gathering was an incredible opportunity to foster cultural education, raise awareness, and create a space for discussing educational and employment prospects. It proved to be a healing experience for many, leading to new friendships and partnerships. I wholeheartedly believe that we have accomplished all of our objectives."
This day stands as a testament to what we can achieve when we all work together. It serves as a reminder that despite our diverse backgrounds, we can all agree on the beautiful game of football. The Football Freedom Project has not only brought joy and unity but has also given hope and a sense of belonging to those who need it most. As we continue on this journey, let us embrace the power of football to transcend boundaries, create positive change, and build a world where everyone has the freedom to play and thrive.