How Australian Rules fosters belonging


RMIT’s winning Investigative Journalism entry in the Ossie awards 2021

From a young age Ifrah was fascinated with Australian football. She remembers watching kids at her school play the game but never played footy at a club or Auskick until recently.

“I always wanted to but none of my friends or family played so it was something I just saw the kids at school do.”

“I was late to get into it, but once I did it was interesting to see how little the multicultural community that plays Australian football was,” she said.

Ifrah Ibrahim, an Australian-born Muslim woman from a Somalian background, has six brothers and a sister. Some of her older siblings were born in Somalia.

For such a large family, it’s no surprise that sport was a big part of their childhood.

“We were really into sports when we were growing up.” She recalled going to the park to play sports with her siblings regularly.

It was only about five years ago that Ifrah began to play football after participating in a tournament called the Unity Cup.

This program not only helped Ifrah begin to play football but also helped her connect with more people and find a job helping others in fellow multicultural communities.

Football is unique as it can provide the multicultural Australian community with a sense of belonging, as many may feel foreign or excluded from the culture.

Geelong Cats full forward, Tom Hawkins and Shamsiya Hussainpoor at GMHBA Stadium.

Many of us are privileged to have footy memories from as young as we can remember but for some multicultural communities this will not be the case.

Currently there is a very low number of children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities playing football.

In October 2021, 43,039 kids had registered for Auskick. Yet only 18 percent (7906) have at least one parent born overseas.

Auskick is a program for five to twelve-year-old children to learn the basics of football “no matter if you know the game or not”.

Co-author of this article Shamsiya Hussainpoor is a former refugee.

Geelong Cats full forward, Tom Hawkins and Shamsiya Hussainpoor at GMHBA Stadium.

She said she found a sense of belonging in Australia when she was young through the AFL, in what was at first a very intimidating and foreign country.

Shamsiya told her story here and also spoke with others about their journey to feel connected.

Refugees building connections through AFL.

The effort to get multicultural communities involved in football in recent years has ramped up recently , but it wasn’t until 2005 that the AFL introduced their first major multicultural program.

Since then many clubs have begun their own programs and initiatives.

North Melbourne in 2010 launched a program called The Huddle, which aimed to help young people “learn, grow or belong”.

In its 11 year period it has seen almost 100,000 participants across its programs helping young people focus on “career, education and social inclusion”.

Zachary Read, the school and community engagement manager at The Huddle, sees his role as “delivering football-based programs generally at primary schools, growing the game at grass roots level. With the idea that you are inspiring passion and participation”.

Zachary spoke about numerous successful projects the program has run, many of which are not football related.

Many multicultural communities, especially migrants or refugees, may not be familiar with Australian football and may feel excluded if the program was solely focused on that.

“I guess that’s why we don’t just run AFL programs. Sport is a global language, which is amazing, AFL isn’t. That’s the beauty of sport, it provides a unique way for people to connect,” Zachary said.

Shamsiya Hussainpoor loves kicking footy with her nephew.

One of the biggest challenges for programs like The Huddle is getting people to participate in the first place.

There are many barriers to participation for lots of multicultural communities.

AFL Victoria schools and diversity manager Nish Moses works closely with many clubs to help get as many people involved in the game.

Nish did however highlight a few key barriers that AFL Victoria aims to help people overcome.

A major one is “clubs being inclusive, so we are trying to help with club cultural awareness training at community football clubs. Ensuring community clubs are inclusive and educated is a big part of the strategy”, he said.

Caspar McLeod spoke with Wassim Rafihi, a former refugee who has worked with footy clubs around Victoria, about his route into the sport.

Another barrier is the difference in types of participation across countries.

As an example, Ifrah highlighted how during her childhood most sport was casual play at the park with family. This is the case in many countries.

In contrast, in Australia a lot of sport and participation is highly organised. Nish highlighted the importance of educating possible participants about the benefits of organised sport.

This included improved mental and physical well-being but also the ability to create community engagement.

Nish said playing sport at a local club when he was younger helped his parents find friends.

Video by Caspar McLeod on Refugees and Footy.

Transport is another difficulty, particularly for large families like Ifrah’s.

To overcome this barrier a very successful program by AFL Victoria targeted bringing the programs to people, instead of expecting them to come to the program.

“With the changing demographic we acknowledge that we need to go to communities and meet them in an environment they feel safe and comfortable,” Nish said.

AFL Victoria has run Auskick programs in recent years outside schools or religious spaces to try and attract participants in those environments they feel most comfortable at.

Both Ifrah and Nish spoke very highly of this initiative and believe this should be continued.

Another successful program was the Unity Cup.

Nish helps run the event and believes it’s very beneficial for people looking to play footy.

Many people like Ifrah are often introduced to the game through this tournament, where local areas put together teams and play in a fun and inclusive environment.

“It is really successful as we see a high level of transition from that program,” Nish said.

Quang Huynh with his Unity Cup team.

A unique factor of the Unity Cup is that it attempts to break down barriers that refugees or migrants might have struggled with in their home countries.

“A lot of communities that come to Australia from refugee backgrounds probably don’t have the best relationship with governments or the police force as an example. So we try to break down those barriers through footy.”

The Australian Federal Police is a key partner of the Unity Cup. “So they will be there on the day engaging with the participants and families to show them the police are there to support them,” Nish said.

Programs like these have been extremely successful but more needs to be done to increase the low number of children from CALD communities.

The Huddle often consults Ifrah, who is their multicultural development officer, about suitable initiatives and programs she thinks could be effective.

Ifrah is pushing for two specific Auskick programs, a multicultural Auskick program and another that is female-only.

Female-only Auskick programs are not a new concept. Prior to and during the rise of women’s football there were many female- specific programs which were highly successful.

The inaugural AFLW season in 2017 saw a 76 per cent rise in female participation in football.

Nish discussed how girls-only Auskick has dropped off in recent years after its peak during the rise of AFLW.

He said most Auskick programs are now fairly even in the number of boys and girls. But he recognised that some cultural backgrounds are far more comfortable with gender-specific programs.

Ifrah believes for Muslim women like herself, it is a key factor in increasing their participation.

“I know for me that was a big thing for my parents, they did not want mixed teams, and it is always mixed until around 12 years of age. A girls-only Auskick, especially for Muslim girls, would be pretty promising.”

Football has the power to unite people and give a sense of belonging. Through football Ifrah’s family gained a whole other community which they became a part of.

“We were involved in our own Somali community but we were never involved in the more broader South-East Melbourne community,” she said.

“These were people we would have never talked to or met before. And a lot of them had said they had never talked to or met a Muslim before, so they did have questions at times but it was really cool to be the representation for our community.”

Making progress getting multicultural communities involved is not going to be an overnight task. It will take time and commitment but these programs provide evidence that it can be done.

Ifrah believes that women’s football in recent years is an example of the progress.

“If you look at the amount of effort we have put into women’s football recently, just in the last five years, and how much it has grown, you can tell, if the effort is put in, we could really make a big difference.”