For many migrants, reaching Europe is just part of the journey. Once there, they can apply for asylum. And after that, they wait.
It can take months or even years for those applications to get resolved. That's the case in Italy, one of Europe's front lines during the current migrant crisis.
Italian authorities have set up shelters all over the country where asylum seekers wait. But they don't have permission to work. So usually they don't have much to do.
That’s where Liberi Nantes comes in. It’s a non-profit group based in Rome. And its mission is to give migrants something positive to do. And the main way they do that is through soccer.
Liberi Nantes organizes a team entirely made up of refugees and asylum seekers. And this team plays in Italy’s lowest-level amateur league. And that means that every week they play against a regular team made up of Italian players.
This is a key point, according to Liberi Nantes co-founder Alberto Urbinati.
“It’s important for us to let them play with Italian guys. Because every match is an occasion to meet and have an exchange with Italian guys,” Urbinati said. “There are lots of associations that play matches among migrants, and that’s a beautiful thing. But the real challenge is to bring this kind of team into a real competition… and that’s what we do.”
Aside from scoring goals, the idea is to give participants an opportunity to form new relationships and recover their dignity.
And the results aren’t bad either. Last season Liberi Nantes came in second in its division. Which means they played on par with most of their Italian competition, or better.
So what’s the reaction been from those Italian players?
“We’ve had very few bad reactions,” said Urbinati. “Usually we have either indifference or a very good welcome. Because sport is very powerful in this way. You simply play. It’s an easy way to establish a relation with the other. You don’t have to explain who you are, where you come from, which is your story. You just put the ball in the middle of the field and you start to play. You don’t have to think, you just do it.”
With all the news we’ve been hearing about record numbers of migrants reaching Europe in 2015, you might think Liberi Nantes is a new initiative.
But it’s actually in its eighth year. Alberto Urbinati was one of nine friends who founded the club back in 2007.
“We used to go to the stadium to see [professional] matches and there were a lot of racist chants, and people booing black players,” Urbinati recalled. “So we decided to give a different message using the same tool, with the football.”
So every year, they hold tryouts to form a brand new team of migrants and asylum seekers. The first year 20 people showed up. This year’s tryout attracted 200.
Eight years ago, the players came mostly from Afghanistan and Nigeria. Today, they come mostly from countries in sub-Saharan Africa. One nation that's especially represented in this year's roster is Gambia.
Liberi Nantes now goes beyond soccer, though. The group also organizes hiking excursions for the migrants, and trips to Rome’s many landmarks. And there’s a language school, too, to help migrants learn Italian.
It’s a lot of work, and it's expensive. Urbinati told me he and other volunteers have put a lot of their own money into the club’s initiatives. Local authorities provided access to a soccer field, but Liberi Nantes still has to pay to rent the dirt field and run-down locker rooms.
The club’s financial fortunes may be about to improve, though. Liberi Nantes has found a corporate sponsor this year, and formed a partnership with one of Italy’s top pro soccer teams, AS Roma. And a crowdfunding campaign is underway.
Home games are still on a dirt field. But Urbinati is hopeful about the future. “Maybe one day we have enough money to build an artificial grass field.”