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Community Impact

Special Olympics Athletes and Refugees Team Up for Unified Football in Spain

Hundreds gather in Sevilla for a Unified with Refugees event backed by UNHCR, LCIF and ESPN

Inclusivity took center stage in Seville, Spain on 25 April 2024, as Special Olympics Andalucía football players and refugees from the local Refugee Reception Center came together for an exhibition match. Joining them were over 250 local physical education students who enthusiastically cheered on the participants.

This 'Unified with Refugees' event was made possible thanks to the support of a range of partners including the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), ESPN, the National Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security, and Migrations, the City of Sevilla, and the Sevilla Refugee Reception Center (CAR).

Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Lead Advisor Gerald Mballe said, "First and foremost, I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to Lions Clubs for their longstanding global support, UNHCR, ESPN, the City of Seville authorities and all the participants. Your support and friendship have been invaluable in making this event a reality.

"The message of inclusion, acceptance and breaking barriers that our Special Olympics athletes are championing here resonates worldwide.

"A special thank you goes to the CAR as well, and congratulations on the remarkable work you do. Lastly, I want to express gratitude to the wonderful students who joined us, offering their support to our athletes and refugees."

First initiated in 2016, 'Unified with Refugees' is a collaborative effort between Special Olympics, LCIF and UNHCR, among a range of partners. This initiative aims to provide a pathway to community and acceptance for two of the world's most marginalized groups. Over the past eight years, athletes with intellectual disabilities have played a significant role in reaching out and helping integrate refugees into their new communities through their participation in Unified Sports events.

UNHCR Protection Assistant Houria Bouchnafa added, “We are very happy to be here supporting Special Olympics and the City of Seville authorities.

“Through the involvement of Special Olympics athletes and refugees, we've successfully promoted true inclusivity and gender equity in sports at this event. Sport transcends borders and resonates globally."

Four people holding a Torch while posing for the photo and standing on a football field, with chairs in the background
SOEE’s Gerald Mballe and Gonzalo Ramos, CAR Director Francisco Jesús Cano and UNHCR Protection Assistant Houria Bouchnafa holding the Special Olympics Torch

Special Olympics España has taken a leading role in implementing this initiative across the Europe Eurasia region. Through strong partnerships with local entities, they address the specific needs of refugees while promoting comprehensive inclusion. The program provides refugees with linguistic and cultural support, while Special Olympics works to educate communities and create new opportunities for integration.

Seville CAR Director Francisco Jesús Cano said, "The event proposed by Special Olympics for our refugees builds upon our successful collaborations from previous years, which our residents loved.

"Every NGO and association operates with a clear mission and vision, and Special Olympics' focus on using sports for integration aligns perfectly with our values.

"Sport serves as a universal language that transcends backgrounds and abilities. This initiative is very important to us, and we intend to organize it again next year."

Lions Clubs Sevilla President Francisco Fernández added, "We extend our gratitude to all the partners whose collaboration made this inclusive 'Unified with Refugees' event possible. Such initiatives strengthen global solidarity and embody Lions Clubs International's mission.

"Wherever there's a need, a Lion stands ready to provide help and support. We express our thanks to Special Olympics and all the participants involved."

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