Football is king throughout much of Latin America, and displaced people from across the region have found in this sport – which transcends borders and erases cultural differences – a way to become more rooted in their host countries.
Goal Click Refugees distributes cameras to football-playing refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people, allowing them to document the many ways the sport helps them to heal from the trauma of having to leave everything behind. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supports the project as part of its work leveraging sports to improve the lives of displaced people, as well their host communities.
This year, for its third edition, the project handed out disposable cameras to 10 displaced people in Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama.
Latin America is a continent on the move, home to nearly one fifth of the people that UNHCR serves globally. It is home not only to the majority of the more than 7 million Venezuelans who have left home over the past few years but also to an estimated 6.8 million people displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia, the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced people. In Central America people are also fleeing violence and persecution by criminal gangs, exacerbated by instability and poverty, the effects of climate change and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.
For many Latin Americans forced to flee, football comes as a welcome relief – an anchor amid the choppy waters of change as they adapt to their new lives in host countries throughout the region.
“For us, football is important because it helps us keep our minds busy and gives us the opportunity to laugh, interact and meet other people, as well as to develop our abilities as human beings,” said Jaider*, an 18-year-old from Colombia’s Pacific coastal region of Chocó, where the ongoing conflict between guerrilla organizations, the government and paramilitary groups has been fuelling displacement for decades.
Jaider and his family have been displaced twice, once when he was a child and again two years ago. Since then, he has turned to “Vení Jugá”, a programme that aims to integrate displaced children and teenagers in Quibdó, the capital of the Chocó region, through sports and psychosocial support. “It [football] is a way to distract myself. It allows me to clear my mind and consolidate friendships,” he said.
In neighbouring Ecuador, Goal Click participants include a coach in a remote indigenous village and an aspiring young photographer from a soccer-obsessed family.
Sixteen-year-old Johanna Yánez spent much of her childhood on the pitch. Raised with the sport by her football-loving father, she played fullback on a youth team back in her hometown, the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, until the family fled to Ecuador. While she longed to continue her football career in her host country, an injury side-lined her athletic ambitions. But Goal Click allowed her to hold onto her connection with the sport, even as she developed another passion – photography.
“In the photos I wanted to show how important football is to my dad and my little brother,” said Johanna, who takes part in an initiative supported by UNHCR and a local organization called FUDELA that promotes the integration of refugees and host communities through sport. “I grew up with football, and my whole family plays the sport. It’s a way to relax.”
For Nixon García, the 23-year-old coach of a football team in El Chical, a small town on Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia, football is crucial for building peace and harmony in his community. Traditionally home to indigenous Awa people, El Chical has recently seen an influx of people fleeing the armed conflict in Colombia. The changing demographics – as well as the presence of armed groups in the area – have taken their toll on the village’s inhabitants.
“Through soccer, young people learn about camaraderie, teamwork and friendship.”
“Social issues are complex when you live in a border area where irregular armed groups operate,” said Nixon. “We must work with children, youth and parents to keep motivating them to participate in our community activities and help build peace.”
“Through soccer, young people learn about camaraderie, teamwork and friendship,” he said. “While teaching the technique, we also promote values like responsibility.”
In Venezuela, UNHCR supports football initiatives as part of its community-based protection strategy, aimed at helping prevent displacement by supporting the most vulnerable people. Participants in the Goal Click project in Venezuela include Tibisay Vegas Saltarín, a 32-year-old who takes part in football matches organized by the “Malala Women’s Network”, an organization in the Greater Caracas area that identifies vulnerable residents and refers them to UNHCR and its partner organizations for assistance. Tibisay also works for the network as an outreach volunteer.
She took up football after the death of her mother, to help her recover from the loss.
“Neighbours…invited me to play to encourage me to try something different. So, along with other young women in the community…we formed a women’s soccer team. We sent a clear message to society: That soccer is not only for men, and women can also play soccer and do it well,” she said.
“During our practices we include our children because we are all mothers. When we play soccer, we set an example for our children that playing sports is something good that fills you with life,” said Tibisay.
“For me, football is life…. It’s life and it’s discipline.”
Additional reporting by Catalina Betancur in Quibdó, Colombia, Jaime Giménez in Quito, Ecuador and Claudia Uribe in Caracas, Venezuela.