Escapism through football - Clapton CFC meets refugee team

Renaissance FC on the pitch

Renaissance FC on the pitch - Credit: Renaissance FC

A Hackney football team has partnered with an initiative that aims to support refugees’ physical and mental health through sport.

Known for its strong anti-fascist values, Clapton CFC aims to make sure no one stays on the sidelines. It has a number of teams and training sessions, aiming to make football accessible to everybody, no matter what age, gender, background or ability.

The women and non-binary team, run by Ellie Guedalla and Julie Leaff, recently partnered with the mental health support group Renaissance FC.

Set up and run by Daniel Mansaray, Renaissance FC provides a space for refugees and asylum seekers to improve their physical and mental health whilst working on their English and social skills.

Bakran Ali, 21, a refugee from Sudan, said: “It’s important for us because as refugees and/or asylum seekers, we can’t work during the week and we don’t have many opportunities to exercise and to keep sane.

“The football sessions brought a new routine to our life. Every week I feel excited about the coming Saturday. It’s not only about the football – it’s about the lovely people you meet and the friendships you build.”  

Clapton CFC and Renaissance FC players

Clapton CFC and Renaissance FC players - Credit: Clotilde Nogues

Clapton CFC and Renaissance FC first came together to encourage female refugees to attend the sessions.

Clapton player Jessie Bret, 41, said: “What makes this alliance special is that the two clubs work together on equal footing."

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Jessie said the project has always been mutually beneficial. The team, predominantly men, made her feel so welcome, something she said was a big boost to her confidence. 

Yusuf, 29 from Syria, said: “It also shows us that, as a refugee, you are not alone. Seeking asylum is a devastating process, so coming every Saturday and forgetting about this for few hours definitely helps a lot.” 

The players speak of a feeling of escapism. One 23-year-old Renaissance player from Iran said: “For two or three hours, I’m not a refugee anymore. I just forget about all my problems.

“People are are not fake here, they are real people with a great energy – and they give you this energy. It makes me happy.”  

The collaboration creates a mixed environment. Once on the pitch, men and women from different ages, cultures and abilities unite together.

“I can’t stress what an amazing opportunity it has been,” said Jessie. “All these different styles and approaches coming together on one pitch to have a good time. I’m in awe of the skills and uniqueness of play that I’ve seen.”  

Many players said being on the pitch with women had a big impact.

“I can tell they taught me something: they taught me to support other players,” said the Iranian player.

Attend one of the games and you will hear people shouting encouragement and celebration, and he added: “I know I am part of a team, both of Renaissance and Clapton. I’m so happy and lucky to have found these people. I can say they are my friends now."  

Clapton CFC joined with Renaissance FC for a football tournament on April 17

Clapton CFC joined with Renaissance FC for a football tournament on April 17 - Credit: Johanna K

As many of the players are following the Home Office asylum seeker processes, their situation is uncertain.

Jessie said: "For me it became emotional. I began to look forward to catching up with the Renaissance players, but the Home Office system is like Russian roulette. I worry that at any time I might get a message saying one of the players has to move.” 

Bakran, who has played with Renaissance for a few months, was suddenly moved to another city.

“When I received the Home Office message, I was really happy at first,” he said. “But a part of me was sad because I knew I won’t be able to come and play football with everybody anymore.” 

Founder of Renaissance Daniel faces many challenges in keeping the team running. Equipment and travel cost money and he as been raising money via a page since November.