(LONDON) — One month ago, Shoykrylah Kasimi played soccer for the first time in his life. Kasimi, who is from Afghanistan but lives at an asylum center in Denmark, now plays four times a week.
“It’s very exciting,” he told ABC News. “Everything is new for me. Everyone who comes here at the asylum center goes to school and sleeps. It’s nice to go outside and play soccer.”
Kasimi fled Afghanistan about 10 months ago because of armed conflicts in his village. He is now one of the players in a new soccer league for young men who are staying at four Danish asylum centers. They will compete against each other in soccer matches starting in August. Training has already begun.
The asylum teams consist of asylum seekers with different nationalities — some are from Syria, others come from Afghanistan and Africa.
“Even though they don’t speak the same language they can play together,” Per Bjerregaard, former CEO of the Danish soccer club Brøndby IF, one of the initiators of the project, told ABC News. “Soccer is a language they have in common.”
Bjerregaard and two other Danes from the soccer industry came up with the idea when they were watching the news and saw refugees walking down Danish highways.
“We agreed that we also had to do something to help,” said Bjerregaard. “The idea is to give them exercise and psychological encouragement because it isn’t very fun to be at an asylum center with nothing to do. They don’t know if they are going to stay in Denmark or if they have to go somewhere else, so it must be a cheerless existence.”
Some of the asylum seekers showed up for their first soccer training session this month in bare feet. Football boots weren’t among the few things they brought with them when they escaped their home countries.
“They were expecting to play soccer in bare feet or socks but we had grants to buy them soccer boots and clothes. So we saw many happy and surprised faces,” said Bjerregaard.
Training takes place in Danish clubs. The idea is to introduce the asylum seekers to Danish society and give them a network, which could also help them if they end up being granted asylum and staying in Denmark.
“Voluntary associations are very important parts of Danish culture. It’s an environment where community matters a lot. We are hoping that this new network can help refugees find jobs later,” Kasper Koch of the Danish Red Cross told ABC News. “Being physically active also helps get your thoughts away from the gruesome if you’ve been through something traumatic.”
He said the project is targeting young men specifically because it is particularly difficult to find good activities for them to do in their spare time.
The project is supported by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the Danish Red Cross, the Danish Football Association and the Danish foundation TrygFonden.
The plan is to expand the pilot project so that young men at all Danish asylum centers can participate. In the longer term, the goal is for the players to join regular Danish soccer clubs and play alongside Danish players.
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