Adhoch Denis, aged 30 is Kenyan, he lives in Nairobi alongside refugees from Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and as far as Syria and Yemen. He works with the international NGO Danish Refugee Council, in the Urban Protection Programme. In this post, he explains why sports, music and cultural events are critical in helping refugees heal, bringing communities together, and helping youth build a common future.
“In sports and music, we are all equal. The international community and organisations involved in refugee responses must invest in activities that bring refugees and local populations together.” – Adhoch
Many studies have shown that refugee children and youth are particularly exposed to sexual and gender-based violence, gang violence, and trauma linked to their displacement. Many face difficulties in accessing basic services. In urban refugee settings, such as Nairobi’s bustling city landscape, the social structures of the youth and children are disrupted. Too often, they reside in informal settlements without their parents or relatives. This can be a lonely and difficult environment to cope with the past, at times spill over conflict in the country of asylum for rival communities and also face the uncertainty of the future.
In such situations, sports can promote social cohesion not only among refugees, but also between refugees and the youths in the host community. Sports makes common bonds as humans very obvious. When we gather to play, the field is neutral, everyone is equal. There is no judgment. Through sports and play, traumatized children can temporarily forget about the atrocities they experienced. I have personally seen that physical activities can help children and youth to open up about their past. It is a form of therapy.
Sports has obvious benefits for health and fitness, but it can also be a source of livelihoods for talented refugee youths. It is important for children and youth to see that they are capable and can succeed in something. This gives them confidence and boosts their resilience. What people often forget is that sports also strengthens soft skills like fairness, tolerance, teamwork and the ability to respond positively when you fail or lose.
I have been working with refugees in Kenya since 2013 with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). In this role I have led sports programmes for youth and children, both refugees and Kenyans. I see time and time again that there is too little awareness in the host communities about the struggles and trauma that refugees have gone through and the challenges they face in exile. The host community’s acceptance of refugees is largely affected by their perception of refugees. Negative perception is usually fuelled by lack of knowledge on why refugee fled and what they experienced. This can be made worse if they see them as competitors for opportunities, especially in the ever-growing youth population. But changing perceptions on refugees can be achieved through sports, creative arts, music and cultural events. The international community and organisations involved in refugee responses must invest in activities that bring refugees and local populations together.
A young Somali refugee who participated in ‘A Goal for Peace’, a sports tournament organised by DRC recently said to me: “We Somalis have arguments and small disagreements all the time, but through this tournament I leant that conflict is never a solution. I learnt the importance of peace. Following the simple rules of a game like football where you report to the referee as soon as you are provoked is a great example of a conflict resolution”.
The objectives of the tournament – A Goal for Peace – was to promote peace and cohesion among the youth from both the refugee and host populations. This was very important especially after reports of xenophobia during the 2017 general election campaign period in Kenya. Both groups of young people came from areas that were reported to have high potential for violence, in Nairobi and its surroundings. During the tournament they shared stories and explained what peace means to them. One young Kenyan man from the Kayole neighbourhood who took part in the tournament was deeply moved by this experience. He told me: “I had never interacted with the refugees before, although we have been living in the same neighbourhood for years! I did not realise that we could also become refugees. This tournament has showed me what I can do to promote peace in my community. I want to continue sharing this message”.
My everyday experiences with youth and children have convinced me of the power and potential of sports, music and culture in bringing people together. My call and plea is for the international community to step up their support for joint youth centres. The talent, curiosity and full potential of the younger generation affected by conflict and war must be supported – that is the key to sustainable inclusion of refugees with their hosts. Children are the future and we must give them the tools to create a peaceful environment for themselves.
Photos: ©Odienge Odhiambo