In Sarajevo 122 athletes from nine cities—together with children from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria living in a local refugee centre—played in a tournament as part of Special Olympics European Football Week 2019. All of these young players, their coaches and supporters certainly expected to enjoy some football, however they probably didn’t anticipate being part of a special wave of inclusion and acceptance, on and off the pitch.
“I had to do something to help her”
A simple action by one caring coach made the tournament about much more than football—it became about shoes. As children from the refugee centre were placed in Unified teams, a coach sitting on the sidelines suddenly jumped out of her seat and ran toward a young girl who stood among the other children. She knelt in front of her, untied her own trainers and gently put them on the feet of the girl who was wearing flimsy plastic slippers—the only pair of shoes she owned. In that moment, the bustling in the sports hall stopped. Then people started running to their lockers to find shoes for the children while others readily opened their wallets. With her trainers on, the girl kissed the woman and ran off to play with the others.
“I love children and my heart broke when I saw the girl with her slippers. I had to do something to help her,” said Sabiha Struga, a coach at FC Sportivo, who had given her trainers to the girl.
Another coach, Sabina Sunjic, vowed to get shoes for the children and a few days later brought 21 new pairs of trainers to the centre that she herself had purchased. Sunjic isn’t finished. She and her daughter Edna, 18, a Special Olympics athlete and youth leader, plan to start a collection drive at the mainstream school Edna attends and involve students in gathering shoes and clothes for the children in the refugee centre.
“Small tokens of kindness remind us of our humanity”
The tournament also proved how fear and intolerance can be overcome when we take the time to see the common thread of humanity that binds us all together.
“What ESPN did through its sponsorship was a call to action to help children and families in the refugee centre,” said Dr. Kada Delic-Selimovic, National Director, Special Olympics Bosnia and Herzegovina, and former Olympic athlete and coach. “The children have a sense of bewilderment, sadness and loss—reminding us that we too had experienced such feelings two and a half decades ago,” she said.
While the adults wrestled with memories, children and teens with and without intellectual disabilities laughed and played, embracing the children from the refugee centre wholeheartedly. However, the public perception of refugees can be harsh, explained Delic-Salimovic, but thanks to ESPN the football event exposed how unfair this perception is to children who are truly vulnerable. She went on to tell how one of the van drivers who was to bring the children from the centre to the sports hall did not want to drive because he believed refugees were “criminals.” Nevertheless, he was persuaded to do so, albeit reluctantly. But instead of standing outside of the hall until the game was over, he watched the children play. And, when it came time to award teams, he insisted on presenting medals.
While the change in attitude of the driver was welcomed, the plight of refugees was brought back into sharp focus at the end of the day when the children and parents hesitated to get in the vans because they thought they were being deported. They were reassured that they were not—and that there would be other chances to come and play. “All I can say is thank you ESPN for supporting this simple but powerful inclusive initiative,” Delic Salimovic said. “What happened here today—small tokens of kindness, compassion and ultimately acceptance—reminded us all of our common humanity.”