Watford midfielder Valon Behrami calls for solidarity with refugees fleeing ‘extreme situations’ ahead of new Football Welcomes initiative this weekend
Premier League player Valon Behrami speaks out about his experience of fleeing Kosovo in 1990 and how football helped him settle in Switzerland.
'Sport is one of the best solutions to integration…I want to give one hundred percent for a country that has given me everything'
Behrami and other professional players are backing Amnesty International’s Football Welcomes initiative bringing clubs together this weekend to show support for refugees
In an exclusive interview to support Amnesty International’s Football Welcomes weekend, Watford FC and Switzerland player Valon Behrami has spoken out about how football played a crucial role in helping him build a new life in Switzerland after fleeing the horrors of ethnic tensions in Kosovo in 1990, and has appealed to others to ‘be ready to help’ those fleeing crises and conflict around the world today.
His plea comes as the football community unites this weekend (22-23 April) to celebrate of the contribution refugees have made to football in the UK since the Second World War.
The Amnesty International Football Welcomes initiative, supported by a range of Premier League clubs, the English Football League and the FA Women’s Super League, marks the 80th anniversary of the arrival in the UK of some of the first refugees to play professional football here.
Valon Behrami said:
“Sport is one of the best solutions to integration. Football and sport in general can help you do a lot.
“I was born in Mitrovica, a town in Kosovo. I stayed there until I was four. One day my dad realised there was no future there and it started to be a bit dangerous and we chose to go somewhere else. You have to be brave to move your family from your comfort zone.
“After a few years the war started to get very bad. It was frustrating because we were in a good place, a safe place, but the rest of my family were left behind. My uncle and cousin got killed.
“It’s very good to give something back to Switzerland. It’s a country that gave me the opportunity to be here. I want to give one hundred percent for a country that has given me everything.
“I see now the extreme situations in some places in the world. We should just be ready to help.”
Clubs participating in Football Welcomes - including Leicester City, Hull City, Everton, Southampton, Stoke City, Brentford and Notts County - are putting on various activities and events this weekend to show their support for and solidarity with refugees. Some are offering free tickets to refugees living locally or putting on tournaments for refugee participants in their community schemes. Others are organising stadium tours or player visits, or promoting the initiative on their websites or in match programmes.
As well as Behrami, other players have also come out in support of Football Welcomes.
Stoke City striker Saido Berahino said:
“I’m proud to support Amnesty International’s Football Welcomes initiative – it’s an issue that is so close to my heart.
“I grew up in Burundi and lost my father in the Civil War there. We had to leave the country in the hope of a better life and although I was separated from my mother for two years, I eventually made it to the UK.
“I’ve been given a second chance in England. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve been given and the chance to turn your life around is something that every refugee deserves.”
Crystal Palace forward Christian Benteke, whose family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was two years old said Football Welcomes is important because “refugees should be treated as normal human beings, whatever their story”.
Talking about the challenges refugees can face, he added: “I feel that if you have a dream in your head, you have to do everything you can to reach it. No matter what your background - it’s just going to be harder than others, but you can still do it.”
AFC Wimbledon captain Paul Robinson said in a video posted on the club’s website:
“Football is such an inclusive game that’s open to everyone and it can help refugees integrate into their local communities.
“I know myself how much joy football can bring, and for football to welcome refugees into the game and try and give them that chink of light, that escapism of a weekend, it’s a great initiative and it’s brilliant to be part of it.”
Football Welcomes is part of Amnesty International’s I Welcome campaign for a better international response to the global refugee crisis. The campaign encourages local communities to work together to create a more welcoming environment for people fleeing conflict and persecution.
Participating clubs include:
AFC Wimbledon, Bath City, Blackburn Rovers, Brentford, Cambridge United, Colchester United, Crystal Palace, Everton, Fulham, Huddersfield Town, Hull City, Leicester City, Newcastle United, Northampton Town, Norwich City, Notts County, Oxford United, Plymouth Argyle, Portsmouth, Preston North End, QPR, Sheffield United, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland, Watford, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Yorkshire St Pauli, City of Liverpool FC.
Amnesty International UK would like to thank for their support: the Basque Children of ’37 Association; Connect Sport; FARE Network; the Football Supporters Federation; Football Unites, Racism Divides; Kick it Out and the University of Brighton.
This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of the arrival in the UK of some of the first refugees to play professional football here. They were child refugees from the Spanish Civil War, evacuated to the UK after the infamous bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937, who went on to play for Southampton, Coventry City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brentford, Norwich City, Colchester United and Cambridge United.
Amnesty International is the world’s largest human rights organisation with seven million supporters worldwide.