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Refugees in Indonesia Turn to Soccer to Fill Lives On Hold

Following Australia’s decision to block migrant boats, thousands of refugees are now stranded in Indonesia. With little access to work or education while waiting years to be resettled, they have devised ways to keep productive, including the creation of a sports tournament.

Written by Henri Ismail Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Members of the refugee futsal club FC Shahin warm up before their weekly training. FC Shahin is one of the futsal groups founded by refugees in Cisarua. Henri Ismail

CISARUA, Indonesia – Refugees living in Indonesia have a lot of time on their hands. They are not allowed to work, travel or go to school, and most don’t speak the local language.

Many originally came to Indonesia in transit to Australia, but are stuck there since Australia stepped up efforts to turn back refugee boats and stopped resettling new refugees from Indonesia in recent years.

Indonesia never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, so the government does not officially recognize asylum claims. Instead, asylum seekers face a long wait for the U.N. refugee agency to determine whether they are refugees, and if so, resettle them elsewhere, a process that asylum seekers say usually takes between four and six years.

While they wait, refugees do all they can to try to make life meaningful. With little official support, they have organized a community life by themselves, including setting up schools and sports teams.

In late 2016, a group of refugees in Indonesia organized an all-refugee futsal tournament, a five-a-side version of soccer that is popular in the local refugee community.

They were inspired by the participation of Team Refugees in the 2016 Olympic Games, says Mobin,* an Afghan refugee and former football coach in Iran who was head of the futsal tournament organizing committee.

Players from FC Shahin listen to a briefing before a match. (Henri Ismail)

Players from FC Shahin listen to a briefing before a match. (Henri Ismail)

The futsal tournament launched in September in Cisarua, a town in the mountains of West Java, which is home to around 3,000 of Indonesia’s approximately 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of them ethnic Hazaras who fled persecution in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

One of FC Shahin players give instruction for the rest of the team before the match.

One of FC Shahin players give instruction for the rest of the team before the match.

Refugees in Cisarua are passionate about futsal. The game is accessible and affordable as teams can pool the cost of renting sports grounds. With lots of free time due to lack of education and employment opportunities, the futsal grounds of Cisarua are always full of refugees, both young and old.

Young students at extracurricular futsal practise. (Henri Ismail)

Young students at extracurricular futsal practise. (Henri Ismail)

“Futsal keeps us busy, so we are not sitting at home and doing nothing. Sports also help us stay away from many problems,” Mobin said.

Futsal also gives an opportunity for some refugee women groups to play sports and participate in public life. (Henri Ismail)

Futsal also gives an opportunity for some refugee women groups to play sports and participate in public life. (Henri Ismail)

The game is popular among male and female refugees alike, many of whom aspire to become professional soccer players once they are resettled in another country. Girls started to play futsal at the informal schools set up by the refugee community and, with the support of their peers, gradually grew more comfortable playing in public grounds. Now, futsal has become one way that female refugees from conservative communities in Afghanistan can freely participate in public life.

A refugee family takes a picture on the futsal pitch. (Henri Ismail)

A refugee family takes a picture on the futsal pitch. (Henri Ismail)

Word of the tournament spread quickly and around 20 local teams – all male, of mixed ages – joined the tournament. Each team paid 200,000 Indonesian rupiah ($15) to register and then 100,000 rupiah ($7.50) per game, which was put towards the rental of the futsal pitches, hiring two local Indonesian referees and prize money for the winners. One team, FC Shahin, had T-shirts made for the tournament with the slogan, “Stand With Refugees,” inspired by the Refugee Olympic Team’s slogan.

Portraits of the FC Shahin team. They made their t-shirts, inspired by the refugee team at the Olympic Games. (Henri Ismail)

Portraits of the FC Shahin team. They made their t-shirts, inspired by the refugee team at the Olympic Games. (Henri Ismail)

After each match, organizers posted the scores and a detailed breakdown of the match on Facebook, and the tournament built up an online following among the local refugee community as well as among the refugees’ relatives back home. Many players also posted their game highlights on social media, allowing them to show friends and family elsewhere that they are still leading productive lives.

A refugee family upload the results of their match onto Facebook. (Henri Ismail

A refugee family upload the results of their match onto Facebook. (Henri Ismail

At the end of the three-month tournament, a refugee team called Dortmund won. But all the teams marked another kind of victory: They had shown that they will not stop living despite being in limbo.

While his team didn’t win the prize, “We are still so happy,” FC Shahin player Murtaza said. “We got to show our maneuvers to all the spectators and prove our talent.”

*Name has been changed for safety reasons.

Follow FC Shahin’s Facebook page for more news about refugee futsal activities in Indonesia.

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