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When Congolese refugees Emmanuel Nsabimana and Eric Dusabe lived at a Rwandan refugee camp, they would pass the time playing soccer: a sport they had played since childhood.

With no shoes on their feet, they passed the ball barefoot on a sharp stony surface. Dizzy from hunger, their teammates would sometimes collapse – with nothing to cushion their fall. As the only space at the camp to play soccer, it was also in high demand for the nearly 17,000 people who lived there.

Prince Albert, SK

While playing soccer was challenging during their time at the refugee camp, the sport gave them something familiar and comforting as they faced many unknowns. When they arrived in their new home of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in the spring of 2023, they faced more uncertainties as they adjusted to life in a foreign country.

But there was one thing that they could still turn to as they navigated their new lives: soccer. Nsabimana and Dusabe, along with many other newcomer men, were welcomed into the YWCA Prince Albert’s Sport for Settlement program, which was made possible thanks to the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association’s Reaching Each and Every One: A Community Sport Intervention program. This program, which was funded by Sport Canada’s Community Sport for All Initiative, seeks to remove barriers and increase sport participation rates for equity deserving groups across Canada.

“This opportunity is very important to me because it is helping me integrate into the community, and not making me feel like I’m a stranger,” says Nsabimana. “I have learned how to be a good citizen in Prince Albert from my teammates. After we play, we approach one another and talk about life here, which helps me learn how to adapt to life here.”

The Soccer for Settlement! program provided refugees in Prince Albert the opportunity to engage in recreational soccer at Alfred Jenkins Fieldhouse

The funding supported the YWCA’s Soccer for Settlement program throughout 2023 and covered the cost of equipment, registration, transportation costs, team jerseys, and access to the indoor soccer field at the community’s Alfred Jenkins Field House. The program also allowed a group of adult newcomer men to register a team for the summer league with the Prince Albert Soccer Association.

Carolyn Hobden, who oversaw the program, says Soccer for Settlement helped newcomer men overcome financial barriers, and also gave them knowledge of where they can access sports.

“When they first arrive to Prince Albert, many people don’t know where to register for a team or how to get involved in a team. And sometimes, often, teams are already made. So there isn’t room for our clients,” Hobden explains. “They also don’t have very much money when they first arrive, and it can be expensive to join a team on your own. Now, we can cover those costs and give them equipment and jerseys.”

She adds that soccer was the ideal sport to offer newcomer men like Nsabimana and Dusabe, because it’s a very popular sport around the world that is familiar to many newcomers.

“We are always looking for activities to keep our clients connected and to make friends,” Hobden says. “It can become very lonely, so you need things to do to help you feel at home.”

Nsabimana says the Soccer for Settlement program has helped him make new friends, and overcome the feeling of isolation.

“The soccer program for me has been very important. Now I have friendships with people from different backgrounds,” Nsabimana says.

Dusabe adds that the opportunity has helped him be grateful for the little things – for example shoes to cover his feet, and a beautiful indoor field where he can play.

“Playing soccer in the camp was so hard, and I am so happy to play soccer here,” he says. “I am thankful for the good friends I’ve made, and for this experience.”

Hobden says these connections and social interactions with each other also boosts mental health among newcomers – many of whom are struggling and coming from traumatic situations.

“Because of war or persecution, they have had to leave their home country and relocate somewhere else,” she says. “This funding has made a difference and has helped give newcomers hope for the future.”