Football is purpose

Rafel Shamri is the first Dane to win the prestigious European Citizenship Prize for her work combatting radicalisation with a local football team

When Rafel Shamri was 16 she started a local football team in Vejle, Jutland, to give a sense of purpose to kids from rough neighbourhoods. Over the years the team also became a way of combatting radicalisation, which is why this summer, aged 20, she became the first ever Dane to win the prestigious European Citizenship Prize. The prize is awarded every year by the European Parliament to a maximum of 50 Europeans who have made exceptional efforts towards the unification of cultures, people, or who have in other ways contributed to the development of the European Community.

Why did you decide to start the football team?

I started the team because I lacked one to go to when I was younger. I needed some space to be myself and to be heard without being judged while doing something that I love – playing football. Football unites people on and off the pitch, it does not matter whether you are black or white, rich or poor – the only things that matter are hard work and talent.

We also needed the kids to do something other than just hang around in the streets. We had so many meetings in my local community where everyone would just say, “we have to do something”, without anyone acting or taking responsibility. I was only 16 when I had the idea for the football team and I was furious with the grown-ups for not having done anything about it. Many of the kids who were my age were too far-gone to be saved, but I knew we could help the younger kids move away from the horrors of gangs and radicalisation.

Where does your love for football come from?

My dad used to play football with me when I was a kid and he passed down to me my love of the game. I used to feel free when we were at the football ground. On the pitch I was not just that little girl wearing a hijab – I was powerful. Now, when I see the kids improving on the pitch and in school, and working hard instead of lounging about on the streets – I become truly delighted. That is all I wanted from my work.

How does the football team keep youngsters out of trouble?

When the kids are playing football, they literally do not have time for much else. They come home from school, change their clothes, come down to kick a ball about, and on the days where there is no training, they know they have to behave in order to be selected for the next match. The fact that they have to behave in order to play motivates them tremendously.

I sometimes laugh at the amount of money the government spends on integration programmes, which hardly ever show any results – and then my little project seems to be making a real, palpable difference. What is really funny is that all it took was love, effort and time.

Why are you motivated to be a good example to young people?

I am trying to be a front figure for the younger generation. To inspire them and to make sure they know that there is always a place for them, where they can feel at home and be safe. I take these kids away from the streets and show them that there is more to life than having a sort of ‘gangster-like’ existence. I aim to help them be heard and seen by society, not as troublemakers, but as the genuine people they are underneath their stroppy attitude.

What do you hope to achieve with the project in the future?

These youngsters need a voice. Society is constantly telling them how to behave and how to act, but people rarely listen to the hopes and dreams of these kids. I hope that I support them and show that there is more to life than being a thug in your local neighbourhood.

What was it like winning the European Citizen’s Prize?

It was a big honour to win the prize and I was so ecstatic to represent Denmark through winning the award. It is truly hard to put it into words I was just so delighted that our hard work had paid off in such a big way.

Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?

I think that very few people understand that integration is a two-way street. I am a ghetto-kid and I have witnessed that great things can come from taking the ‘best of both worlds’ so to speak. Ghetto-kids like myself just want to be heard, supported and accepted. I do not think many people understand what it is like to feel and be regarded as a stranger in one’s own country. I would like to urge society to reach out to these kids and listen – sometimes a helping hand and a smile is all it takes. M


By Joshua Hollingdale

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