Nations United

Chichester, like many other towns and cities around the United Kingdom, is home to a growing community of refugees. The volunteer-led organisation Sanctuary in Chichester has been at the forefront of making the city a welcoming and hospitable place for refugees and those seeking asylum.


Sanctuary ‘offer support to newly-arrived asylum-seeking families to avoid destitution’. They help to deal with the trauma of their individual circumstances, providing an all-encompassing approach to settling in the UK. Their work has taken on greater importance in the wake of the European Refugee Crisis.

The crisis of the past decade, the biggest forced migration of people since the Second World War, has upheaved millions from their home countries, undertaking journeys that are fraught with danger. Europe presents safety and opportunity for people fleeing persecution, violence and terror; men, women and children risk their lives to escape harm. Travelling to Europe via unlawful routes and at great financial and personal cost, refugees risk their lives further to enter the UK. 

Despite media rhetoric, ‘the UK has not been disproportionately affected by the refugee crisis’ of the last ten years. Similarly, the UK asylum system is no more generous than other European nations. In fact, Sweden and Germany have been the leading nations in Europe for accepting and protecting refugees. The asylum system in the UK is stringent and offers little financial support. An allowance of £36.95-per-week is given to single adult asylum-seekers, during which time they may not be permitted to gain meaningful employment. To compound their difficulties, they may be forced to live within a detention centre. Unlike other countries, there is no time limit for which a person claiming asylum may live in a detention centre, the condition of which often resembles that of a prison. 

There is an expectation that refugee settlers must sit and wait when first entering the country. Lives that have been changed beyond recognition must be paused whilst waiting for a verdict presented by a government office, often by someone with little understanding of the danger posed by being forced to return home. During the uncertain months, when families must wait for their right to remain in the UK, staff at Sanctuary in Chichester are on hand to ensure families and young refugees are housed and safe from harm. In the event that people are granted asylum, Sanctuary remains involved, their important pastoral support continues to help refugee families settle, integrate and contribute within their new communities. The goal of which is not to change their way of being, but to rebuild their lives within Chichester. By integrating themselves and their children, Sanctuary hopes the lives of all people in Chichester will be enriched. The future, with the assistance of Sanctuary volunteers, is one of hope and promise. It was through Sanctuary and one of their drop-in sessions for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, where teenage refugees would gather to socialise, that the Nations United team was formed. 

Jelani, the captain of the team, suggested the idea to the Sanctuary volunteers in 2017. His love of football encouraged him, whilst participating in the session, to inquire about a possible refugee football team. After moving from Eritrea to Chichester in 2016, Jelani began to miss playing football competitively. He was aware that other young men within the Sanctuary programme loved football and craved a space within which they could play. As the longest standing player and club captain, Jelani is an inspiration to the many young men that play within the Nations United ranks. His passion and skills have drawn admiration from many local football clubs, one of which he now plays for. His adoption into a club with majority English players is a testament to the work of Nations United, as well as the skill and determination of Jelani.

It was a collective effort in conjuring the Nations United team, but the likes of Duncan Barratt have helped to maintain the group and increase the number of footballing success stories through proper coaching. With compassion and empathy for the players, coaches such as Duncan are motivated by making a difference and helping people. The University of Chichester has played a close role with the club, providing a number of aspiring and qualified football coaches over the past few years. Along with Duncan, these coaches aspire for Nations United to become more closely affiliated with the Sussex Football Association. Such a step would further bolster diversity within their ranks and create more opportunities for the Nations United team to play 11-a-side matches.

In his time with the footballers, Duncan has witnessed the transformative effects of the sport. Afforded a space in which to be open and free, many players are no longer timid and introverted, instead, they have learnt to be members of a team that has performed well competitively. Their confidence on the pitch is utilised in other areas, with Sanctuary keen to work with the players in developing their English language skills. Finding the balance between classroom learning and the collective enjoyment of football has posed difficulties for Sanctuary, though the organisation continues to successfully work with young asylum seekers in maximising their chances of staying in the UK. The personal development of these people, many of whom are in their teenage years, has been one of the main tenets of Sanctuary in Chichester’s work and this same belief is adhered to closely at the training sessions of Nations United. The two groups are symbiotic, with Sanctuary closely monitoring the wellbeing of the Nations United players.

A diverse roster; players from across the world are present at each training session, with numbers regularly exceeding twenty. Refugees from Sudan, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Libya play alongside each other, travelling from towns and cities across East and West Sussex. Tahir arrived in the UK from Sudan and spoke about the mutual understanding that is gained from playing football; language is not shared, but this is irrelevant to the feeling of enjoyment and community experienced by those present. ‘Football is good for my body and good for my future’; many of the young men at these training sessions, who represent Nations United competitively, have undergone treacherous journeys to be able to dream of their futures. These sentiments are echoed by Adam; also Sudanese, who arrived in the UK in 2019. For these players, they are aware that it would be difficult for them to train with local football clubs. The issue of language would be unlikely to be the sole barrier to participation. Without the lifeline presented by Nations United, Adam would be one of many refugees that are unable to pursue his passion for football, despite this being a fundamental part of his being when living in Sudan. 

For Aseel, whose parents were from Libya, football is held in equally high regard for its ability to bring people together. ‘It helps you to forget personal problems and build friendships’. As someone who was born in England, Aseel has had the opportunity to experience life in the UK and Libya. He has the same empathy for his teammates as exhibited by Duncan, understanding the difficult pasts for many players and how Nations United allows the players to unify with a shared purpose. It’s with these players that Aseel utilises his linguistic skills, speaking both English and Arabic to enjoy moments with teammates and friends. He has been attending sessions with the club for a couple of years and hopes that the club can expand; ‘I believe there should be more clubs like Nations United, no matter your situation, all people have the right to play football’. Aseel has seen first hand how Nations United has assisted refugees and host communities to develop, integrate and celebrate different cultures. 

Nations United and KLABU are two organisations that, through their differing means, use sport as a way of helping refugees live their lives to the fullest. KLABU are a Dutch social enterprise that, through the sales of their unique kits and equipment, are a leader in bringing sport to refugees. At the Kalobeyei Refugee Settlement in Kenya, the first KLABU clubhouse has provided employment opportunities and sporting equipment for thousands.

Rather than just surviving, both Nations United and KLABU believe that sport has the power to help refugees transform their lives. Sport has the potential to unite communities; a shared language that is easily comprehensible for all. For those facing persecution, sport is far ‘more than a leisure activity’. As seen firsthand by the KLABU team within the Kalobeyei Settlement, and even on the astroturf pitches at Chichester University, refugee communities are empowered to forge close ties with their host community. This strengthening of social cohesion affords those playing sports protection - ‘a chance to heal, develop and grow’.

The nationalities of the Nations United players are diverse and so too are those present in the Kalobeyei Settlement, where KLABU’s work continues to provide respite from the strife caused by fleeing one's home country. Nations United offers a similar sporting escape from the pain felt by refugees along the south coast of England. The difficulty of existing as a person fleeing conflict and persecution in Britain is no less severe when compared to a person inhabiting the Kenyan refugee camp within which KLABU operates. Their experience of Britain poses new questions, threats and challenges. 

KLABU have shared their kits with the Nations United players, material reminders of the ‘Kalobeyei Spirit’. The kits can serve as a reminder of the strength and potential of refugees within Chichester; their vibrancy will encourage further conversation about the benefits of sporting opportunities for new settlers in the UK. Nations United will continue to provide a space for refugees and asylum seekers to play football on the south coast. Their training sessions are set to continue; a success of the project has been the consistency with which training is held. This consistent safe space, continuously gaining greater numbers of refugee footballers is a lifeline for young people in a precarious position. Nations United is a rare success story, within a political and social climate that breeds uncertainty and hostility to those who are different. It is evidence that community projects, those established from the bottom up, are often best for the improvement of peoples lives.  

Nations United has empowered local people to act with ‘dignity, compassion and integrity’ and to avoid the cycles of harassment and hostility that are so common to those who are different to themselves. The future is full of hope and opportunity for the Nations United team, with many players entering into traditional footballing teams and leagues. The ‘empowering and facilitating role’ of Nations United will continue to help players express themselves, build friendships and escape from the struggles of daily life, of which we can only empathise. 

Importantly, Sanctuary in Chichester retains its dedication to all young refugees and asylum seekers. With pride in the Nations United project, they are keen to provide further support and solidarity for non-footballers. The charity aspires to make the city of Chichester welcoming and non-discriminating, a goal that is continuously worked towards. With a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, Sanctuary is committed to listening to their refugee and asylum-seeking community members. Their drop-in sessions are an ongoing and invaluable resource for the sharing of experiences in a safe and welcoming environment.

‘Even though we are from many different nations, we are one team’.


With thanks to Duncan Barratt, Lucia Withers and Gemma Driver of Sanctuary in Chichester, as well as the Nations United players (those photographed include Tahir, Aseel, Adam, Abdul, Hameed and Minkhy).

Photography: Chris Hoare
Assistant: George Maund

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