The Big Pitch - How football can bring torture survivors new hope

By Selcuk Berilgen, Freedom from Torture Group Therapist

As Freedom from Torture’s football group co-ordinator I am thrilled that members of our football group will be attending a premier fixture at Arsenal Emirates Stadium on 11 February. It’s Arsenal vs Hull and we look forward to seeing some exciting football.

But it’s what happens after the match that really matters. Our boys will come down onto the pitch to meet some of their Arsenal heroes before they play their own game at The Hub.

It won’t be just Hull FC who are travelling to Highbury that day. There will also be a team of refugee players who have a similar relationship with Hull FC and the Tigers Trust as the Freedom from Torture team with Arsenal FC and Arsenal in the Community.

The football group is part of our group work programme to compliment the individual therapy and counselling Freedom from Torture provides to clients, who are survivors of torture seeking safety in the UK.

Our group is a joint project between Freedom from Torture and Arsenal in the Community.  Together with Arsenal's community development officer, Jack Ironside, we run weekly football training sessions at The Hub, right next to the landmark Emirates Stadium and in walking distance from our London office. When we started the project in April 2012 we had just six clients involved – now there are 25 in the group.

Many members suffer from mental health related issues, including the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It is common for them to have nightmares and flashbacks as a consequence of the terrible experiences that they have endured.

Their recovery is made difficult by the stresses of the UK asylum system and the very low incomes they survive on. Even after they have reached a place of safety, life is hard and they find it difficult to relax, trust others and focus on meaningful activities.

Being in the football group has helped our clients to overcome depression, make new friends, aided their communication skills and boosted their confidence. It helps them get used to structure and routine. It assists them to move forward with their life.

That newfound confidence has gone forward into everyday life. I have seen group members become volunteers and improve their English, and after they have gained refugee status, into go into employment and education, to find new purpose and enjoyment in life.

Whatever the result of the match, we are delighted to be meeting and playing with our refugee friends from Hull.

Jack Ironside, agrees. He says:

“Saturday will be a fantastic celebration of the Arsenal For Everyone initiative. We are looking forward to welcoming the Tigers Trust and it will be great to have the two groups come together for a match day experience”.

About the day

The Arsenal vs Hull match will commence at 12.30pm and is expected to finish around 2.30pm, after which both refugee teams will come down to the pitch to meet each other and, hopefully, some of the premier team players. Both groups will then go to The Hub (next door to the stadium) where their match will begin at 3.30pm and continue till 5pm.

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