How Arsenal-backed football scheme for torture survivors is helping fix broken lives
PUBLISHED: 15:14 10 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:20 10 March 2016
An Arsenal-linked Finsbury Park charity is helping a group of torture survivors move beyond their painful pasts. The Gazette dropped in on a practice session
How do you help someone so traumatised by experiences of torture that he can’t even bring himself to speak about them?
Some benefit from counselling, others from art therapy. But at Freedom from Torture, a Finsbury Park-based national charity that helps survivors of torture rebuild their lives, football has proven to be one of the most effective therapies.
Every week, a group of about 25 young men meet at the Arsenal Hub next to the Emirates stadium for football practice.
The players, from as far afield as the Congo and Iraq, are brought together by the charity in association with Arsenal in the Community, as part of the football club’s social inclusion programme.
When I arrive at the Hub on a Monday afternoon, their weekly session is just coming to an end. I’ve been warned by the charity that many of the players will be reluctant to talk.
So I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself surrounded by around 20 smiling young men – all of them eager to tell me about how the programme has literally changed their lives.
At the request of the charity, none of the men in this feature can be identified by name.
“I remember when I first came to this country, I felt really shut down and isolated in my room all the time and didn’t even know how to interact with people,” says a man from the Congo. “Now I have people to talk to and feel like moving on to a normal life.”
Another man from the Congo pitches in: “I’m one of those people who doesn’t like standing in front of people and looking them in the eyes.
“But coming in and seeing people from different backgrounds in the same situation – and seeing them laughing and smiling and doing normal things – makes you think you can do the same thing. I don’t think there’s any other group in England that can do that.”
He added: “Now I always look forward to Monday. I always arrive early before kick-off just to be around this place, because it means so much to me.”
Are they still in touch with their families? There is a long silence; this is clearly a difficult subject.
“This is my family,” says one man finally, and there is a murmur of agreement.
Many members of the team, I later find out, are still going through the asylum process, meaning they cannot yet seek work, while others feel lucky to have low-paid jobs, such as stacking shelves in supermarkets. All are victims of torture.
“They have all experienced and sometimes witnessed forms of torture and ill-treatment,” says Selcuk Berilgen, a therapist at the charity and founder of the team. “They have all suffered multiple losses – family, friends, community, surroundings, country – and then they have to live in a new country, learn a new language and way of life. To me, they are all survivors.”
So how exactly does football help?
“One of the consequences of torture is the regression of the self,” explains Selcuk.
“And this regression is re-enacted in the football. At first, they all want us to see their individual skills – then eventually, it becomes more of a group and you start to see one person pass to another.”
Since he started the group in 2012, he has witnessed a marked improvement in the team.
“Developmentally, something happens in the group,” says Selcuk. “There is healthy rivalry, competition, winning and living with loss.”
Tempers can run high on the pitch, but much of their anger at moments of stress is directed towards the match referee – and challenging authority, says Selcuk, is actually healthy, a sign they’re getting better.
Before joining the team, the men rarely met - except in a waiting-room prior to individual therapy sessions at the charity’s headquarters in Isledon Road.
As the weeks have gone by, the team members have also started to look out for one another, sharing in each other’s joys and setbacks.
“When someone comes in with a box of chocolates, we know something good has happened and the group is happy for them,” says Selcuk.
“Sometimes, of course, things happen that are not so good. But they support each other and give each other advice. I know, for instance, that they gave a bed to one man who was homeless.”
Has anyone ever left the team?
“Yes, but mainly to move on to better things, like a job or education,” he says.
Last week, the team was shortlisted in the London Football Awards for London Community Project of the Year.
“It was difficult, because we could only take five,” says Selcuk. “Of course, there’s always someone who’s upset and feels left behind – but there are so many opportunities within the team that they didn’t feel too left out.”
Over the years, the team has played against Oxford University and against an equivalent refugee group in Manchester – where they were treated on a tour of Old Trafford. They’ve also attended the Paralympics, been to the Arsenal training ground and won two Arsenal Achievement Awards.
Although they didn’t win anything at the London Football Awards, they were all delighted to have been shortlisted.
“I’m so happy the group has been recognised,” says one man. “Before, people outside didn’t see what a great job they are doing here.
Freedom From Torture in numbers 2014/15
1,313 torture survivors were referred to the charity
78 countries of origin of torture survivors
269 torture survivors were children and young people
341 torture survivors from Sri Lanka were referred to the charity - the most from a single country
754 torture survivors were referred in London and South East
“It’s the best help you can expect for people who don’t have a family or friends in a new country.”