Individuals with intellectual disabilities and refugees have found a safe haven in Spain thanks to the Unified with Refugees initiative, which offers a pathway to community and acceptance for two of the most marginalized groups in the world.
Last spring, the Fundación Real Betis organized a football exhibition at the Ciudad Deportiva Luis del Sol in Spain, bringing together players from Special Olympics Andalucia and refugees from the Seville Refugee Reception Center (CAR).
The event also marked the start of the 19th EFDN (European Football for Development Network) Conference. The conference brought together more than 150 experts from European football clubs' corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments to share, exchange, and learn about effective CSR practices through their club foundations.
Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President David Evangelista said: “It’s a great honour that Special Olympics is able to implement its Unified with Refugees programme as part of the annual conference of the European Football Development Network—our partners at EFDN.”
The 'Unified with Refugees' platform, initiated by Special Olympics in 2016, is a collaborative effort supported by Lions Clubs International Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The primary goal of this initiative is to tackle the pressing challenges encountered by individuals living in refugee settings worldwide. Over the past seven years, athletes with intellectual disabilities have played a significant role in reaching out and extending friendship to refugees through this programme.
“First and most importantly a huge thanks to Lions Club International Foundation for making this possible, through their very generous financial support and by activating their volunteer network to support the implementation. I’d also like to thank ACNUR (Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados), the UNHCR national committee here in Spain, that has been a steadfast supporter and the CAR here in Sevilla, the reception center that has been a huge partner. Our athletes’ message will serve as a compelling call to action for all—not only here but around the world—that through the Unified with Refugees programme new friendships can be made and new bridges can be built to social development, to human development.”
Special Olympics España has taken the lead in implementing this initiative across the Europe Eurasia region. They have achieved this by establishing strong partnerships with local entities, enabling them to effectively address and respond to the specific needs of refugees while promoting comprehensive inclusion. Through this program, refugees receive linguistic and cultural support, and Special Olympics plays a crucial role in educating communities and creating new opportunities for integration.
Fundación Real Betis General Manager Rafael Muela said: “We are very happy to host this event in our facilities with the support of the EFDN foundation. It was an inclusive sport demonstration activity in which we were delighted to collaborate in and in which we usually participate in, in this case together with Special Olympics which is also our ally, and with UNHCR.”
EFDN Project Co-ordinator Vicky Conde Sancho added: “It has been a pleasure to witness this match and to be able to bring together people from all over Europe to see how we can improve lives simply by giving them the opportunity to play football.”
“The activity that Special Olympics proposed to our refugees followed from a previous collaboration that we did at the end of last year and that our residents loved. Every NGO and associations have a core mission, a vision of what they want to achieve; and Special Olympics’ is using sport as a means to integrate, which is a perfect fit for us, because we share the same values. Ever since we started collaborating last year, not only here in Seville but also in Alcobendas, Vallecas and Mislata, all centres of the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migrations have begun to collaborate with Special Olympics to raise awareness of our community and of that of the athletes with intellectual disabilities. And I believe we are going to keep collaborating and doing more things together, because it is a very liberating and enriching activity for them.”
UNHCR Spain Assistant External Relations Officer Edelmira Campos added: “[Special Olympics and UNHCR] have an agreement at a global level, and here in Spain we are implementing it in a very concrete way. We share expertise, find common ground and make things happen.
“This is not the first time we organized activities with Special Olympics. What we see is that the happiness and the impact in the lives [of the refugees] lasts way beyond the time of a football match. This programme changes lives and it helps them improve both their mental and physical health.”
Lions Clubs International Foundation representative Adrián Romero commented: “[At LCIF] we understand that sport is one of the most direct ways to promote integration. It’s the perfect means to reach people and here all barriers are torn down. There are no limits, here we are all equal.”