Considering the personal challenges of refugees


4.3.5. Challenges and barriers

Sport can be accessible or non-accessible in a range ways. When they talk about accessible sports organisations, for example, many people think about opening clubs up to people with physical disabilities.

But it’s also useful to think about accessibility in relation to structural problems. This text has a primary focus on refugees but it is important to remember that accessibility is important on many different levels. Despite having the best intentions, it is not always easy to be an open organisation. In their journey towards being inclusive, clubs and other sports settings will meet many challenges and obstacles, some of which will be easier to overcome than others.

To provide an overview of the challenges that might be faced we have divided the barriers into four groups:

  • Physical barriers
  • Structural barriers
  • Mediating barriers
  • Personal barriers.

Physical barriers

Where and how someone lives can have a big impact on which organisations they can be a part of. Some areas have a smaller range of sports organisations or clubs nearby. Not everyone is able to travel to training facilities easily if there are none close to where they live. Research shows that proximity to sport is a crucial factor in whether or not people are able to participate.

Some neighbourhoods might also be perceived to have a negative image for those who do not live in the area. That reputation has an impact on those who do live in these areas and they may be faced with prejudice as a result. Some sports organisations may not want to establish themselves in the area. Others may use a venue or training site without involving or inviting people who live close by.

With increased alienation, it is not unusual that the gaps in society grow too and this in turn can lead to increased suspicion between different groups. Sport can prevent alienation by being present in lots of different kinds of areas and offer inclusive activities that involves everyone in shaping, leading and developing the organisation or club.

In order to participate in sport, one must be able to get to and from training or competition. If cheap and frequent public transport is lacking, young people might depend on adults having access to a car and being able to drive, which is not the case for everyone.

Proximity to the school day and the school itself can help overcome some of the challenges. The school is often considered a safe place, regardless of culture or country, and is also considered a natural pathway into a new country and its society and structure. By keeping close to the school, or even using the school’s facilities, more children and young people are given the option to participate. Creating a close relationship between school and sports is usually one of the keys to success when working with children little experience of sports.

Structural barriers

Structural barriers and the challenge of normative work have already been discussed earlier in this chapter. Our whole society is built on structures and that has an effect on sport too. They permeate everything from politics through business to sport and in a sport setting they are demonstrated by who is elected onto the board, who gets the best training times at the club, who has the best financial conditions or which teams receives the primary focus and attention.

Structural barriers can also be demonstrated through ignorance and prejudice, for example that girls with immigrant parents do not like to exercise or that children who live in certain areas or from a certain socio-economic background are not allowed to participate because of their parents.

It is to be expected that we all have different traditions, experiences and knowledge levels when it comes to sport. Our own history with sport is based on us as individuals and is often different to that of other people with the same background or from the same country. That makes it crucial to consider each individual’s interests and experiences. It is important to meet and identify similarities and then use that common ground to build a relationship.

For example, we can think about what time of the day we arrange our training sessions or which public holidays we take into consideration. Today we have a clear idea of when to practice sports, but in order to be more inclusive we might need to reconsider that and open at different times to make the club truly accessible to everyone. We also need to make it clear what we expect from our members so that everyone gets the same chance to take part. We might also consider opening up the club or setting to new types of sports with origins in different countries.

It’s important to remember that whilst sport can build bridges, it is a not a panacea. One Norwegian study showed that some young women with an immigrant background found that sport had helped them build a social network and overcome racial divides, whilst others said that sport made them feel marginalised and that cultural differences made it difficult to form friendships with their teammates1.

Successful integration projects tend to be long-term and involve as many people in the organisation as possible.

Mediating barriers

Communicating without mastering a language is a challenge and can create barriers. However, research shows that sport can be a great help in learning a new language and that, once mastered, it is easier to take on other parts of society and to create a network of contacts2.

The challenges of communication are not only based on the language we speak – we all meet people who speak the same language as us but with whom we fail to connect. In those cases, the issue is usually around us entering the conversation with different life-experiences. Likewise, a person who has been subject to discrimination by a structure is much more aware of injustice than someone who has benefitted from the same structures. This can create problems when people from the two groups meet to discuss, for example, racism because their experiences are so different.

Another barrier to communication is that it is usually those who are part of the norm and who are privileged that enjoy most of the power in an organisation. This can make it difficult for them to communicate with those who are exposed to discrimination. One way to prevent this is to involve the target group and allow them to influence the content and form of the club. This can also make their commitment to the club grow.

Social and structural codes are another thing that can pose problems in communication. They have to do with how we work with other people and what behaviour the group that we are a part of accepts. These social codes are everywhere around us and they are different for different groups.

Social norms work as informal rules that dictate how people are expected to behave and breaking these rules usually incurs informal social sanctions. These can be anything from subtle social gestures to social exploitation or, in some cases, even harassment or violence.

Social norms are self-sustaining because the individuals in the group constantly observe each other’s behaviour and imitate them. Individuals with a high social status have a greater chance of influencing others in the group. In uncertain situations when the group faces a common threat, the leader usually has the ability to change the norm or rules.

For example, a strong social code in Sweden is being punctual. If the coach says that the training session starts at 18:00, participants are expected to be on time, changed and ready to start. Being aware of these expectations is not something that comes automatically and this code needs to be explained to those who have not grown up with it. This is important in order to provide everyone with the tools to understand it as a social code. As a change to the norm, it also could be an idea for leaders to allow for 15 minutes of down time, for social contact and bonding, in order to benefit the social aspect of training.

Another option is to establish some sort of buddy system where teammates with different backgrounds get paired up. By integrating and including migrants with local residents, the club can provide a context and the teammates can learn from each other.

Political social scientist Robert D. Putnam coined the expressions “bridging” and “bonding” regarding different types of social connections3. Bridging means getting to know people who are different to yourself (for example with a different cultural or ethnic background). Bonding means to keep the relationship with those who have the same background as you. The scientist Karin Walseth also uses these expressions when she discusses and describes the importance of sport activities4.

Walseth’s study shows that most new relationships created in a sport setting are fairly shallow, but even so they can be of importance in getting to know a teammate’s background and what norms and values they conform to. Bonding is common within groups where the participants have known each other for a long time.

Personal barriers

As we mentioned earlier, every individual is unique. This means that there could be several reasons why a person experiences obstacles or challenges when taking part in sport. If you are from a family where sport has not been a natural part of life, for example, the first step to start exercising might be bigger than for someone who grew up with sport as part of their family life.

It is also important to remember that people come from different financial backgrounds - some sports require expensive equipment or simply cost more. A further challenge might be a lack of knowledge about how sport is structured in the country.

Time, or lack thereof, is also something affecting accessibility. Often sport requires parents to get involved in one way or another, which might be difficult if free time is limited or if parents don’t feel able to get involved in coaching or driving their children.

Many of those who arrive as refugees originate from countries or continents where the form of organised association which we take for granted in Europe is relatively unknown or even prohibited. For those people, it may not feel natural to use the sports club as a form of organisation5.

It also means that the knowledge of how to show interest in participating or engaging in a sports organisation is crucial. One thing that has worked well in Sweden is inviting entire families to the sports club to share knowledge about the organisation and explain how to get involved, engage and contribute. It is important to give parents the knowledge they need to take responsibility as a parent but also to show them a potentially quicker route to learning the language or social codes.

[1] Walseth, K. 2008. Bridging and bonding social capital in sport – experiences of young women with an immigrant
[2] Lee, Y. (2005). A new voice: Korean American women in sports. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 40, p481–495.
[3] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
[4] Hertting, K., Karlefors, I. 2012. Idrott och nyanlända barn.
[5] Hersan, D., Strömberg, S. 2017. Föreningsidrott och utanförskap.



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