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Yoga & Sport with Refugees & Liberi Nantes: Tackling Barriers to Social Inclusion & Integration

November 17, 2023 

In celebration of the expansion of our #SportForSocialChange retail donation campaign in partnership with Under Armour into France and Italy, we’re spotlighting the participating charities that are using sport to transform young lives. Today meet Yoga and Sport with Refugees, which is improving the physical and mental health of displaced communities in Paris and Liberi Nantes, which is promoting social inclusion, personal development and respect for migrants and refugees in Rome. 

France is considered to be one of the main asylum host countries in Europe. However, though up to 20% of refugees have been granted asylum, a lack of provisions for them has left many without financial and housing support. According to the NGO, MARDi (Medical Aid for Refugees and Displaced People), refugee camps in Paris have become unofficial settlements, at times housing up to 4000 families and unaccompanied children living in tents and makeshift shacks with limited access to healthcare, food and water. Others awaiting an asylum decision after having been rejected elsewhere in Europe are considered Dublin meaning that many can’t access government help in France for up to 18 months. 

Doctors Without Borders reports that Italy continues to be the main landing point for migrants and refugees coming to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. There are just over 180,000 asylum seekers and refugees in the country, with most in or near Rome. However due to inadequate reception policies, around 10,000 migrants and refugees are living in inhumane conditions. Many are being housed in emergency accommodation, but a huge majority are homeless or forced to live in illegal settlements such as abandoned factories. 

Yoga and Sport with Refugees 

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Created in 2017, Yoga and Sport with Refugees (YSR) began in Greece as a response to the huge need for healthy safe spaces, a sense of community and outlets to build positive mental and physical health in refugee camps. It currently offers more than 20 different sports activities including Muay Thai, dance, circus lessons, ariel yoga, running, basketball and climbing to approximately 400 people daily across its projects in Greece and France. The organisation believes that sport can break down ethnic and religious barriers, creating a safe space for continuous learning and development between cultures where the overall community benefits. 

The organisation began its project in Paris in June of 2022 to support the rapidly growing refugee community who had moved there from Greece. With over 70 of its past and current coaches coming from a refugee background, YSR has the ability to connect with these communities and address the unique challenges faced by refugees. It reaches around 40 young people per week in Paris through sports, workshops, seminars and trips. 

“We have always kept in touch with our past students, coaches and coordinators from the refugee community and we heard them when they called us to say that there was a very big potential to start a project in the French capital: many people are isolated, it's very difficult for them to integrate at first, they are confined to living in the street and under the bridges of the Paris metro because France doesn't put the necessary means to welcome asylum seekers humanely,” said Founder and Executive Director, Estelle Jean. “We saw that our community also needed free access to sport in a city where everything is very pricey and reserved for the elite. So, we started our project in Paris with our already existing team members to foster a much-needed community through free access to sport.” 

YSR’s operations in Paris come from responding to the direct and immediate needs of organisations in the city that serve local refugees and asylum seekers. These organisations reach out to YSR and explain the sports programming gaps that would benefit the local refugee community. For instance, its Place de La Bastille program is supported through Utopia 56, a French organisation that supports exiled people. The program provides sports opportunities to unaccompanied teen boys and men in a refugee camp in Bastille who mainly come from the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Mali, Iran and Kurdistan. 

“We were called to action by Utopia 56. They told us to come and start doing sports there because it would help a lot to give the boys something to do daily and to create a small routine for them. It also helped them to stay healthy, to keep moving and to make lasting friendships,” shared Jean. “What we witnessed in the camp in Bastille was first the inaction of the French government to put these minor boys in a safe place, in a house where people would care for them, where they would be able to go to school every day and to join a sports team as they wished. To us it was not an option to stay silent and motionless, we needed to act and provide with what we know can change someone's life when [they] are in a very critical situation: sports and togetherness.” 

“Sport really helps people to get out of their routine, getting out of the camp which is so full of despair and hostility. When people come to exercise together in our outside gyms, they take time for themselves and completely change. Many who come are very shy the first-time when they arrive and don’t interact with others. But after a few short sessions, they become very social and find good friends they trust. This is why doing sport for and with displaced people is so important,” said Jean.

With funds raised from the Beyond Sport X Under Armour campaign and seed funding provided by the retailer, YSR will provide more sports coaching opportunities within the organisation as well as external training opportunities. The funding will also help with its Coach Development Programme, which supports coaches in tailoring classes to fit the unique needs of youth. Jean also shared that all sports activities and programming in Paris take place outside, even during winter as they don’t have an indoor place to provide sports. “We’re actively looking for partners and funding to be able to have our own sport space so that we can offer more activities taught by displaced people to foster more of a community.” 

Liberi Nantes 

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Liberi Nantes was founded in 2007 in Rome when a group of friends who shared an interest in social issues surrounding immigration and who were passionate about football created a football team made up of refugee kids and political asylum seekers. Its name comes from Virgil's poem "Aeneid" which spoke about swimmers who navigated the Mediterranean sea to seek safety from wars, persecution and humanitarian crises. The organisation was welcomed by asylum reception centres in Rome, becoming the first sport association in Italy to be recognized by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Liberi Nantes promotes free access to sport for all refugees and asylum seekers, offering those escaping from war or humanitarian crises a chance at freedom, rebuilding their lives and creating new connections and relationships through sport. The initial team played in a non-competitive league for 12 years to ensure that everyone – regardless of documentation or bureaucratic issues – could play. In 2019, in collaboration with UNHCR, legal company ASGI (Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione) and UISP, which supports the values of sports against every form of exploitation, Liberi Nantes was able to get the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti (National Amateur League) to approve a proposal that would allow its teams to access the top leagues – a historic achievement for promoting integration through football. 

The organisation offers free sports and recreational activities in addition to opportunities for social interaction and personal growth. It has a goal of eliminating barriers that prevent people from having access to the same opportunities as others. Its accessible programs include men’s and women's football teams composed of refugees and asylum seekers, youth football teams made up of migrant minors from Rome’s reception centres and a series of education and after-school sport activities in local schools. Additionally, Liberi offers opportunities for people to learn how to organise sport and cultural events for their local communities. The organisation intends for its programming to be holistic and engage disadvantaged people through sports to build relationships and empower them.

“Sport is a universal tool for personal growth, social development and inclusion. Few things in the world can break down linguistic, cultural and social barriers as effectively as kicking a ball onto a soccer field. It brings people closer together, stirs universal emotions and brings out the full potential of youth,” explains the organisation's President Alberto Urbinati.

“In today’s complex society, working towards equal opportunities for all, facilitating processes of growth, learning and inclusion means, in a broader sense, contributing to the development of a healthy society. Sport has tremendous potential in this regard: it provides us with the opportunity to create a physical and mental space where we are all equal, where everything begins with the body and emotions. In this neutral space where the differences that often prevail outside the field do not matter, there is the potential to develop processes of personal growth, shared good practices, mutual assistance, and restore human dignity and inclusive principles that stand against discrimination.” 

Last year, Liberi helped around 500 young people from diverse backgrounds, largely categorised into two groups: (1) those residing in reception centres in Rome and surrounding areas subjected to significant marginalisation and poverty due to their migratory background, and (2) families mainly living in the Pietralata area who are facing significant social and economic challenges and high school drop out rates for their children. It also works with second-generation minors whose parents and families are struggling to overcome cultural, economic and language barriers. 

The top challenges facing Liberi Nantes’ participants include limited employment support services for migrants and foreigners, education and housing, as well as a lack of mental health and wellbeing support. They also face social and emotional adversity due to a lack of respect, empathy and acceptance. 

“Working with vulnerable individuals in a broad sense, whether they are minors or adults, Italian or foreign, subject to cultural, racial, or social discrimination, means transforming negatives into potential opportunities,” said Urbinati. “In any context where social, educational, and employment growth and inclusion are not supported and the barriers to these processes are not removed, society is at risk of dangerous outcomes such as school dropout, criminality and illegality. Alternatively, eliminating the barriers that hinder them contributes to the development of a healthy society.” 

With funds raised from the Beyond Sport X Under Armour partnership, the organisation will expand and enhance its youth services and activities to support their mental and physical wellbeing as well as personal growth. By collaborating with schools, reception centres and local institutions, Liberi Nantes plans to structure shared training programs to combat students dropping out of school and educational poverty.

Learn more about the incredible organisations we're working to support in the UK and Europe HERE. If you live in France or Italy, please consider visiting your local Under Armour store to support #SportforSocialChange! 


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