Oxford refugee football team helps players forget ‘bad things’

By Chris McHughBBC Radio Oxford

BBC Player taking a touch of the football, with a coach looking onBBC

The Oxford Phoenix team was launched in 2021 and train twice a week

Players on a football team for refugees have said the sport has helped them make friends and “forget the bad things” that have happened to them.

Oxford Phoenix was launched in 2021 by charity Refugee Resource, and works with refugees and asylum seekers based in the city.

It aims to help them integrate into the community and develop life skills “on and off the pitch”.

The club is now looking for funding to start a women and girls’ team, as well as enter their men’s team into a local amateur league.

One of the team’s 40 players is Usman, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, who has spent the last six months living in a hotel in the city.

Team photo

Oxford Phoenix has more than 40 players

He said the team “means a lot” to him, and that before joining he had been going through depression and was not sleeping.

“I didn’t have friends, so since I got in contact with this team I do less thinking because football makes me happy,” he added.

The team trains twice weekly, and regularly plays in friendly fixtures against local teams.

Esrom, who would walk two hours to every training session before the charity Asylum Welcome provided him with a bike, said: “You try to forget the bad things that happen in your life.

“First I was in the camp, so since I come here in Oxford everything is doing good.”

James Constable and Youcef El-Barhdadi

Youcef El-Barhdadi (R) coaches the team

Youcef El-Barhdadi coaches the team, and works for the Oxfordshire FA as an inclusion officer.

“We have people from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, so people from all over the world, but the key is that it doesn’t matter that they share different languages, they’re able to connect on football and that’s why we call it the universe,” he said.

Mr El-Barhdadi, whose father came to the UK as a refugee from Algeria in the 1970s, added: “It’s funny, sometimes life just comes full circle, and just being able to help refugees is it means the world to me.”

Peter Rhoades-Brown and James Constable

Oxford United legends Peter Rhoades-Brown and James Constable recently joined the team for a training session

Refugee Oussainy, a centre-half from Mali, told the BBC that he dreams of playing professionally.

“I know it’s not easy to do, but I believe in myself and I’m trying to do everything,” he said.

The team is now looking to officially join the English football pyramid.

Mr El-Barhdadi said: “We’ve seen the positive impact regular training and friendly fixtures has on the physical and mental wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced unthinkable trauma to be here.

“We now want to take our delivery to the next level by establishing Oxfordshire’s first refugee football squad in a local league.”

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