Refugees embraced by the world of sports

The sports world has responded loudly to the growing international refugee crisis. Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As anti-refugee sentiments continue to sweep Europe and the United States, the global refugee crisis continues to be one of the gravest humanitarian issues facing our society. Last year, we presented a three-part series highlighting how sport is being used to include and support refugees around the globe. Since then, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reported nearly 3 million more people have been displaced globally, bringing the total to 68.5 million. More than half of this population are children under age 18. Sport continues to be one of the few rays of light making many refugees feel welcome in environments that can be very unwelcoming.

In 2017, an average of 44,400 people were forced to flee their homes every day -- the equivalent of almost 31 per minute, the highest rate in history. While many of these people hope to reach Europe or the Americas, large segments of these regions do not welcome refugees. This has resulted in many refugees settling in other impoverished nations across Africa and the Middle East.

In the United States, President Donald Trump has not only severely restricted refugee entry and attempted to end DACA, but the administration has also canceled U.S. funding of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was established to carry out direct relief and work programs for Palestine refugees. This will negatively affect the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees.

It will require collaboration, support and compassion by our global community to overcome this crisis. While this effort needs to be spearheaded by world leaders and their respective governments, I also believe in the power of sport to positively affect society and the lives of refugees.

From large-scale organizations like the International Olympic Committee to small community-led groups, substantial segments from around the world of sports are showing their support for refugees.

Building upon the momentum of the Olympic refugee team from the 2016 Summer Games, the IOC and a number of National Olympic Committees (NOCs) have continued to use their powerful platform to grow awareness of the global refugee crisis. Before the 2018 Winter Olympics, the IOC, in partnership with UNHCR, launched the "Become the Light" campaign with the purpose of transforming the lives of more than 55,000 refugees by providing electricity to refugees in camps around the world.

In the past year, a number of NOCs have also hosted events for refugees to participate in various sports alongside Olympians in order to help aid integration into the host country's society. Combining Refugee Day and Olympic Day, New Zealand's Olympic Committee organized an Olympic Refugee Sports Day, which brought together 300 refugee children to participate in a variety of sports they might otherwise not get a chance to try. Similarly, the Turkish Olympic Committee and the German Olympic Sport Confederation celebrated Olympic Day with a sports event for 500 children, including 250 Syrian refugees. The celebration, held in Gaziantep near the Syrian border, promoted sports and the Olympics values.

This year, 150 Syrian children at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan were also brought a day of sports by an organization called Peace and Sport, which promotes the use of sports as a tool for peace around the globe. Since its establishment in 2012, nearly 500,000 Syrians have passed through Zaatari as they fled the violence of the ongoing civil war in their home country. This violence has left more than 100,000 civilians dead, including nearly 20,000 children.

In addition to the Olympic refugee movement, there have been a number of examples both internationally and domestically that show various sectors of sport are welcoming refugees with open arms.

Some countries engage and support their refugee population with an unfamiliar sport. Four years ago in Sweden, cricket was fairly unknown with roughly a dozen active clubs. Now, there are more than 70 cricket clubs and the sport is continuing to grow. The increased popularity is largely fueled by the 40,000 Afghan refugees who have come to make Sweden home since 2015. Sweden has found cricket to be one of the best ways to integrate young refugees into their society. The game of cricket may not be new in the United Kingdom, but the England-based cricket club called Wicketz uses the sport as a tool for change with the purpose of uniting a nation.

Just a few weeks ago, three young Syrian squash players -- girls ages 11 to 13 -- competed in the Hong Kong Junior Open representing the new team called Squash Dreamers, which is made up of displaced Syrian children who were forced to flee their war-torn homeland.

In Australia, the Refugee Welcome Centre is integrating refugees into society by teaching swim lessons. A small group of refugees has taken the lessons a step further by training to become life guards.

Free Movement Skateboarding, a non-profit founded by two passionate skateboarders, has created a unique way to help young refugees in Greece. The organization brings mobile skate parks to camps and youth centers across Athens to introduce the sport and offer an outlet of fun for thousands of young refugees awaiting asylum. Although skateboarding may be male-dominated in much of the world, at these mobile skate parks nearly half of the participants are girls.

While some have turned to new sports to positively impact the global refugee crisis, the most popular game in the world is proving to be the most influential. No other sport speaks to a global audience like soccer, which is why so many have used it to reach and aid refugees.

While much of the world was watching this year's World Cup, a number of areas were focusing on local tournaments. In Malaysia, nine teams of Rohingya refugees took part in a tournament that offered a moment of celebration for the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Fitr and short reprieve from the stresses of reality. Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Myanmar to escape violence and discrimination. While Myanmar's government reported 400 deaths as a result of the violence, a survey conducted with survivors in refugee camps determined the actual death toll to be nearly 7,000, including at least 730 children younger than age 5.

Indra Timsina, a Bhutanese refugee and now Canadian citizen, helped organize a multi-tournament inter-city soccer tournament for the hundreds of Bhutanese families who once lived as refugees in Nepal but now live in North America. For Timsina, the purpose of these tournaments is not only to help reunite the refugee community but to unite the community as a whole.

There were tournaments last June that brought together refugee soccer teams to celebrate the sport and its athletes on World Refugee Day. In Cincinnati, 20 teams with more than 200 refugee athletes, men and women, represented more than 10 countries. Similarly, in Belgium 40 refugee teams from across the nation came together to compete. As with most of the examples of groups staging sports events for refugees, the organizers hoped it served an even greater purpose -- to shine a light on initiatives that incorporate refugees and asylum-seekers in Belgian daily life.

After Louis Bien of SB Nation visited Kakuma, Kenya, the third-largest refugee camp in the world, he wrote, "To be a refugee man is to feel ignored by the world. To be a refugee woman, then, is to be erased from it." However, some in Kakuma are finding freedom and meaning through soccer -- especially the women. Through sport, the hundreds of young refugee women on the 73 teams at the camp are discovering their passion, confidence and potential -- which will undoubtedly make an impact in the world.

As a lifelong believer in the power of sport to bring people together and build community, I have been encouraged by these stories of sport positively affecting refugees. For those involved in the sport community, I hope these stories inspire you to take action to ensure that we provide opportunities for everyone, including refugees.

Blair Neelands made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.