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Football as a coping and resiliency tool for separated children seeking asylum in IrelanD

by Rachel Hoare

Amare, a separated child seeking asylum (SCSA) in Ireland, was 16 years old when he came for the first time to my expressive arts psychotherapy practice in Dublin, flanked by his social worker and an interpreter. Amare is the name given in this paper to a composite multidimensional male SCSA who arrived in Ireland from the continent of Africa. Amare embodies the collective and individual themes encountered in my therapeutic work with seven young sub-Saharan African SCSA with whom I worked for an average of 15 sessions each between 2016 and 2019. Writing about and re-presenting the experiences of SCSA using a composite narrative approach (Willis, 2019; Piper and Sikes, 2010), ensures that their identities are protected.

My first impression of Amare was of a diminutive figure, shy and frightened, eyes glued firmly to the ground. Amare had arrived in Ireland six months previously, through one of the Irish Refugee Protection Programmes (IRPP) established by the Irish government in 2015 as a direct response to the humanitarian crisis that developed in Southern Europe at this time. The interpreter had ten minutes before he had to leave for his next job, so here was my dilemma: how to explain the benefits of creative psychotherapy to Amare in the space of ten minutes through an interpreter – no easy task!

I sat down with him and gently acknowledged how difficult his life had been in his home country, telling him what I knew of his story and letting him know that I was there to provide a space just for him every week where he could choose to talk, play games or use any of the creative materials and miniature figures in the room as forms of expression, and that this could help him with any difficult feelings. As a person-centred expressive arts psychotherapist, I invite a SCSA to engage with the mostly non-verbal language of creativity, depending on their preferred expressive modality which may include play, visual arts, dance, movement, drama or writing. Using different modalities multiplies the sensory pathways through which these young people may seek meaning, clarity, and healing. It is particularly effective for those who have experienced trauma, which typically has profound effects on the parts of the brain which control language (Malchiodi, 2008; van der Kolk, 2015).

As I drew my explanation to a close, I noticed Amare fixating on something underneath the chair. I gestured for him to have a closer look and he dribbled back a small football and performed different ball skills in front of me. His face and body came alive and I reflected how proud he must be of his skills. We passed back and forth for the rest of the session and this was how the football-themed relationship and trust-building process ‘kicked off’ between us, building on the familiar role played by football throughout Amare’s childhood and displacement, thereby providing him with a connection between the past and the present. In initial meetings with many young male SCSA, the domain and global language of football emerged naturally to provide an interpersonal, intercultural and linguistic bridge between the young person and myself as therapist.


The social and psychological impact of football had developed into a strong interest of mine since my own children had started playing the game a number of years before and we had all become interested in the players, their teams and the impact of football in their lives. I had also dabbled in coaching the younger age groups. After it became apparent that this was a natural way in which to connect with some of the SCSA, I set about informing myself about the premiership teams they supported, their national teams and their preferred players, and kept myself up-to-date through my own children, as most SCSA sessions began with a round-up of the current form of their favourite teams and players. Before starting work with

Amare, I had been nervous about the potential cultural and linguistic barriers and so it was a relief that football emerged as a way to connect with him. That is not to say that the language barrier never posed a problem – there was many a time when Google Translate was used – and the football at his feet in the therapy room always seemed to provide comfort when Amare was finding it difficult to express himself.

The BASIC Ph model of coping and resiliency provided the internal framework for my therapeutic approach. This model was developed by Lahad et al. (2013) for the assessment and development of coping skills and building of resilience during, and in the wake of, natural and man-made disasters. The categorisation of these coping resources, which can be mobilised in stressful situations, gives the model its name: Belief, Affect, Social, Imagination, Cognition, Physical. It has been used as an effective resiliency assessment, intervention and recovery model in many different contexts including the second Lebanon War and post-hurricane Katrina. As these situations are all characterised by forced displacement it was felt that using this model as a flexible framework would help to elucidate support and develop Amare’s coping and resilience patterns.

The main aim of this paper is, therefore, to explore through the composite character of Amare, the different ways in which football, experienced as a global physical pursuit, or a lingua franca (Penn, 2016), and an important site of player and fan participation and belonging (Spaaij, 2015), can facilitate the development of the therapeutic relationship and develop BASIC Ph coping skills together with cultural knowledge of the host community in the safe space of the therapy room.

SCSA forced migration context and lived experiences
In 2017, 31,400 asylum seekers applying for international protection in member states of the European Union were considered to be SCSA – children like Amare who were below the age of 18 and were not in the care of, or accompanied by, a responsible adult (UNHCR, 2018). The terms ‘unaccompanied’ and ‘separated’ children, (defined by The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, 1992), are often used interchangeably and many countries have adapted these terms to suit their systems of immigration, asylum, child protection and criminal justice.

SCSA began arriving in Ireland in the mid-1990s and although the number recorded in Ireland is low compared to other EU member states, there has been a steady increase since 2015 in referrals to the specialist Social Work Team for Separated Children Seeking Asylum, which is overseen by Tusla, the Irish Child and Family Agency. In December 2018 there were 67 children seeking asylum in the care of Tusla. Newly arrived SCSA under 12 years are found a foster care placement and those like Amare who are 12 or over are placed in a residential unit which is a registered children’s home. Having been identified as a SCSA, young people like Amare are assessed by a social worker to address any immediate medical, welfare and safety concerns as well as any urgent religious, language, cultural, or educational needs. A statutory care plan is then developed and an application for asylum made on behalf of the young person where appropriate.

The refugee experience has typically been described in terms of the three stages of pre-flight (life in the country of origin), flight (the journey) and post-flight (integration into the host country) (Hanson and Vogel 2012). The impact of the experiences of violence, torture and killing during the first two stages together with the associated losses, increase the risk of psychological trauma, especially as the asylum-seeking process in the host country typically results in elevated stress levels and further disempowerment (Groark et al., 2010). Research also indicates that the lack of parental support places them at a significantly higher risk for the development of psychopathology than refugee children living with a family member (Bean et al., 2007). It is, however, important to remember that although the shared refugee experience is frequently associated with trauma, some victims are able to cope, adapt and thrive (Kohli, 2006). The shared experience does, however, involve profound loss (home, identity, trust, and life as it was) and the loss of home includes a myriad of emotional associations and experiences in addition to the physical space (Papadopoulos, 2002).

A composite narrative approach
An adapted form of the composite narrative approach used by Willis (2019) in her exploration of how otherwise easily identifiable British politicians understand and respond to the consequences of climate change, was used in this paper. Notes taken immediately after the therapy sessions of seven SCSA from the African continent, with whom I worked between 2016 and 2019, and for whom football formed part of the therapy process, were used to capture the essence of their experiences in the therapy room and to document my perceptions of their resources and strategies for coping and their engagement with the therapy process. My interpretations of the experiences captured in the notes were combined and are explored through the composite character of Amare. This approach ensures the protection of SCSA’s identity and the provision of a representative picture of the creative use of football with SCSA in the therapy room, whilst retaining the richness and complexity of individual experiences.

The physical, psychological and relationship-building benefits of football during the SCSA journey
Amare reported that playing football in the refugee camps offered a welcome distraction from the overwhelming day-to-day anxieties which often accompany forced displacement. It provided friendship opportunities and promoted the release of endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals. The Social and Imagination (of an alternative way of ‘being’) channel of the BASIC Ph model were both activated together with the Physiological (Ph) dimension. The latter has been identified as a key coping strategy for young people living under conditions of long-lasting crisis such as those in Israel described by Lahad et al. (2013), and has been conceptualised as a direct pathway to the promotion of healing (van der Kolk, 2015).

Furthermore, the neurobiology of trauma shows us that physical activity can stimulate neurological brain responses and growth in centres of the brain which may have been shut down by trauma, such as those responsible for concentration, language, and emotional responses. The use of more creative, active and less language-focused approaches reduces the likelihood of re-traumatisation (Malchiodi, 2008).

Having played football in his country of origin and at different stages during his migrant journey, including a six-month period in a refugee camp, the football theme was a familiar one to Amare when he arrived in Ireland, providing some consistency and connection between past and present. The football in the therapy room prompted engagement through the shared language of football which could then be used to build relationships in the host country context, including the therapeutic relationship. Carl Rogers’ (1951) client-centred humanistic approach underpins my therapy work with SCSA. Identifying a strong interest of the young person, such as football, can provide the foundation for acceptance and support by offering a familiar context within which symbols and metaphor can facilitate the connection with the therapist. This can help to foster a “hospitality attitude” (Jalonen and La Corte, 2017: 79), which characterises the therapeutic relationship and all positive interactions with SCSA by drawing on aspects of life in Ireland, such as football, with which they are also familiar in their home culture.

An inherently social and relational activity, ball play is one of the earliest and most enduring forms of human play (Schaefer and Cangelosi, 2016). The physical act of kicking, throwing or catching a ball provides kinaesthetic, tactile and visual pleasure which builds connections through reciprocal, cooperative play. Amare’s engagement with me through ball play showed that he was comfortable expressing himself through the BASIC Ph physical channel as well as through the social channel of building the relationship through passing the ball and sharing different football skills.

Football can also provide a universal and shared language, which when engaged with during the therapy process, can encourage different ways of expressing identity, creatively processing trauma, and developing mutual understanding as well as going some way towards attenuating potential linguistic challenges (Jalonen and La Corte, 2017). SCSA tended to be referred for creative psychotherapy after they had acquired basic English language skills, and in all cases they had a sufficient level of understanding to engage in the creative therapeutic process, a process which was greatly enhanced for Amare by the relationship-building aspect of ball play and the universal language of football. An interpreter was typically used for the first session only, to explain what therapy was about and how it could help.

Football as a lingua franca and a transcultural portal into unaccompanied lives
Mauro (2019) conceptualises ‘football talk’ between youth from different cultural, ethnic and social contexts in Ireland as a form of ‘transcultural dialogue’ whilst referring to teenagers living between cultures as ‘transcultural agents of diversity’. This highlights the transformative possibilities inherent in the contact between different cultures whilst demonstrating that SCSA are familiar with football talk being used as a lingua franca in this way. Penn (2016) argues that this lingua franca can form a common point of reference between strangers. It can help to cultivate the therapeutic relationship by bringing the therapist and the SCSA together into a shared cultural space which promotes interaction and generates a common communicative environment. This also provides further justification for the inclusion of football-themed resources in the therapy room which, as in Amare’s case, can provide a portal through which he could express himself and connect with the therapist.

The long relationship and trust-building process which started through playful football based relationship-building activities initiated by Amare, then developed naturally into collaborative activities, which included exploring players’ roles using Subbuteo (a table-top version of soccer popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in which players use their fingers to flick miniature figures of footballers at the ball in order to strike it towards the goal), working with miniature figures and using images from football magazines to explore different feelings displayed by footballers on the pitch, such as happiness, embarrassment, sadness, shame, anger, rage and pride. This allowed Amare to project his feelings and thoughts in a safe and non-threatening way by exploring them at a distance from his own experiences, and developed naturally into working through difficulties using the metaphor of football. The original football activities initiated by Amare provided him with the time to ‘warm up’ to the development of a therapeutic relationship, thereby building trust as well as allowing him to showcase and teach me his skills in a fun, connecting and safe way, before inviting me to bear witness to his experiences.

In addition to using the football theme to provide a ‘way in’ to build the relationship, it soon became evident that interpreting the more subtle aspects of the game, and the different roles of players within the team, provided useful opportunities to connect more deeply with Amare’s lived experiences as well as helping him to develop coping strategies. Furthermore, as well as idolising professional players because of their skills on the pitch, some dreamt of a professional footballing career, which they saw as a potential escape route from their fractured lives. Dreaming of future possibilities, often to mask the challenges of everyday lives, fits with the BASIC Ph ‘imagination’ channel, a dimension which can be used to explore and potentially transform self-perceptions.

A metaphor for living and a site of belonging
As therapy progressed, the more sophisticated use of football as a metaphor for life was introduced. The therapist drew on the work of the French philosopher and author, Albert Camus, who proposed that football might be a more appropriate framework for living than politics or philosophy, as it encouraged “personal integrity and even-handedness whilst providing an uncomplicated morality for living” (Camus, 1951, in Sherman, 2009: 64). Camus, who was a goalkeeper, pointed out that the ball never comes to you entirely as you might expect it, a reality which is reflected in everyday life.


Exploring Amare’s life through the metaphor of football enabled him to discover new ways of exploring relationships and to address feelings around personal identity. By developing a shared language and being able to identify with certain values and skills relating to football, his future began to look different. Viewpoints from different player positions were linked to different social situations and on Amare’s suggestion, football league tables were adapted to explore Amare’s own progress in life. It gradually became clear to Amare that in life, as in football, things do not always work out as planned and that everyone has to accept that success and failure, including periods of instability, feeling down or being injured, are inevitable. Thinking about his life indirectly through football enabled Amare to consider his own situation and to be supported in this throughout the therapeutic journey.

Furthermore, being from a culture where the focus is on interdependence and loyalty to the family and community, Amare’s self-concept was based on a collectivist identity. Interpreting the diverse roles of different players and relating these to events in life off the pitch appeared to chime more with his world view. The therapist also used the football magazine images to explore with Amare the benefits to a team of having football players with different origins who often have diverse skills. The diverse nature of the so-called ‘Big Five’ European league teams was not lost on Amare and the perceived benefits of this diversity in the international football context provided a positive framework through which to explore cultural integration and belonging more generally. Providing support to SCSA to make new connections which can ease the pain of separation, and identifying opportunities for them to build supportive trusting relationships and feelings of belonging, is crucial and is represented in the social dimension of the BASIC Ph model.

Soon after arriving in Ireland, Amare was linked in by his social worker with SARI (Sports Against Racism Ireland), a not-for-profit (NPO) organisation active in promoting positive integration and social inclusion through sport. It became clear that engagement with SARI could contribute to feelings of belonging for Amare within the context of this organisation, which could subsequently lead to future engagement with ‘grassroots’ clubs and their local communities. Hence, it is possible that, as well as providing a safe space for transcultural encounters where different levels of local and transcultural belonging are negotiated, an NPO such as SARI can also build confidence to facilitate transition into community sports clubs.

The overall aim of this paper was to reflect upon the therapeutic potential of capitalising creatively on the global appeal of football to young males, in humanistic therapeutic work with SCSA through the composite character of 16-year-old Amare from sub-Saharan Africa. The reflections made in the notes taken between 2016 and 2019, captured in Amare’s composite character, arose from his spontaneous use of a football which was in the therapy room along with materials specifically chosen to facilitate adolescent self-expression. Over time, his choice of the football in his first session and its key role in developing the therapeutic relationship, progressed naturally into using football talk as a lingua franca, using pictures of players to facilitate the expression of difficult feelings, and exploring lived experiences through the metaphor of football as a framework for living. In addition, on the suggestion of Amare, football league tables and club standings were used collaboratively to provide a fun way for us to explore progress in different areas of his life.

The reflections made in this paper through Amare’s composite character suggest that building relationships using football within a humanistic framework can provide an effective means of engaging with SCSA as well as helping to identify ways to build coping, resiliency and a sense of belonging within the framework of the BASIC Ph model (Lahad et al., 2013). Although it is clear that young males in other contexts could also benefit from this approach it is also important to point out that football does not interest everyone and to recognise the importance of identifying and building on individual interests using the same principles. Overall, this paper demonstrates that through the different facets of football, the composite character of Amare was able to navigate his way through cultural, linguistic and psychological challenges beyond the limits and constraints experienced during the different stages of his forced migration. Furthermore, this composite character provided an effective means of presenting anonymised data from therapy sessions with SCSA while retaining the richness and complexity of personal experiences.

Dr Rachel Hoare is an expressive arts psychotherapist and a lecturer in Trinity College, Dublin.

Football images reproduced by kind permission of SARI. Therapy clients are not depicted in

these images.


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