THE history of Irish sport is a tale of emigration and immigration.
Without Donegal man Dave Gallaher the mighty All Blacks might never have existed. Boxer Jack Dempsey, tennis player John McEnroe, even ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali had Irish blood in his veins.
Simply put, it is impossible to ignore the many positive sporting stories that have flowed from this island over the centuries.
Some are choosing to ignore and even warp that rich history. Westmeath footballer and Liberian native Boidu Sayeh has spoken openly about the racial abuse he has suffered. In March members of the Republic Of Ireland’s under-15 squad were targeted because of their ethnicity.
In one little corner of Derry though a project is doing its best to reverse the narrative by actively inviting those seeking international protection and those granted international protection to get involved.
Street Soccer NI operates under the ethos of ‘Transforming Lives Through Football’. And that is exactly what it is doing via its three projects in Belfast, Coleraine and locally.
Adrian Curry is Co-ordinator of Derry’s Street Soccer outlet.
“We have people from different countries, we have people from here in the city, we have people who live in hostels and some who sofa surf. Some of those who come along might have been in prison and were recently released.
“There is a wide variety of different backgrounds here and it is an opportunity to give people a second chance in life.”
Derry’s Street Soccer club meets twice weekly, on a Monday afternoon from 2pm to 4pm and Thursday from 8pm to 10pm. The Thursday evening session regularly attracts upwards of 60 people.
Some of those who take part in Street Soccer are also members of the North West Migrants Forum, the Derry project helping to tackle racial inequality and prejudice. The Forum was founded in 2012 with the fundamental goal of supporting and advising members of black and minority ethnic communities who reside in Northern Ireland.
Director of Programmes at the Forum, Lilian Seenoi Barr, said, “Street Soccer is a fantastic community resource that is bringing people together through the medium of sport. We are delighted to see so many of our members participating and getting involved.”
For many, Street Soccer has become a vital escape from the hotel or hostel they call home as they await news from the Home Office.
“When I visit the hotels, I see them sitting and it breaks my heart,” said Adrian Curry.
“I know when they come here they are excited to get out and meet new people and friends. It helps them fit into society very quickly because one person knows another person and so on. And through those friendships they get to learn about Foyle Arena or going to the gym.”
Among those who regularly tog out for Street Soccer is Tsehaye, an asylum seeker from Eritrea. He has been in Derry for the past four months and lives in one of the city’s hotels.
“I come here twice a week,” said Tsehaye.
“It’s interesting because you have so many different countries here. You might have ten countries on the pitch and even though we don’t all speak the same language, we all still manage to communicate.
“Everyone gets on, everyone is friendly and everyone respects each other. It’s very diverse and it is important for a lot of people.”
While much of Street Soccer is based around the football pitch, as a project it extends far beyond that. Participants can avail of courses such as IFA coaching and first aid. Co-ordinater Adrian is also in regular contact with the local food banks and offers a helping hand when money for gas or electric runs short.
Damilola is 25 and from Nigeria. He is an international student, doing a Masters in International Business at Ulster University. He has big plans and has even designed his own brand which he hopes will help support other young people in the future.
Damilola said, “I have been in Derry seven months and I find great joy here. When I am worried or I am stressed, I look forward to coming here.
“You never see any fights, you never hear anyone no shouting, it is just everyone enjoying themselves.
“I’m very passionate about being successful and I even have my own brand. If you think about Man Utd and Nike, Liverpool and New Balance, I would love to see my brand on there to support upcoming talent.”
Abdul is also Nigerian and like Damilola, he is studying for a Masters degree.
I come to play, to mix with people and make friends. If I didn’t have this, I would stay indoors all day,” the 24-year-old revealed.
Abdul said he has met a lot of people through the Street Soccer programme.
“It’s important for me because I get to make friends and I get to exercise. For the migrants it is important because they get to socialise and they get to feel part of the community.”
Street Soccer has been changing lives in Derry for seven years. It suffered a blow recently when its funding was cut but Adrian Curry is determined that it will keep going.
“For me it is about seeing people grow. Sport is a universal language and for many of the guys here this becomes like family away from family.
“For me that is brilliant because it is the way I run this project, with family at its core.”