The important role of sport for refugees. GETTY IMAGES

On World Refugee Day, Masomah Ali Zada, Chef de Mission of the Refugee Olympic Team, highlights the importance of access to sport for displaced and refugee populations, which has tripled in the last 25 years.

On the occasion of World Refugee Day, Masomah Ali Zada, Chef de Mission of the Paris 2024 Refugee Olympic Team, highlighted the important role of sport in supporting the integration of refugees and displaced persons into their new communities.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2023, at least 117.3 million people worldwide will have been forced to leave their homes. Of these, around 43.4 million are refugees and around 40% are under the age of 18.

Sadly, this number is steadily increasing, having tripled in the last quarter century (from around 34 million in 1997 to around 118 million in 2023), underlining the importance of providing comprehensive support to so many people around the world.

Ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the Olympic Refuge Foundation is working through its Terrains d'Avenir programme to remove barriers to access to sport and sports facilities in the French capital.

Masomah Ali Zada, Refugees Olympic Team Rapresentative, and Thomas Bach, President of IOC. GETTY IMAGES
Masomah Ali Zada, Refugees Olympic Team Rapresentative, and Thomas Bach, President of IOC. GETTY IMAGES

This year's World Refugee Day focuses on solidarity and solutions for displaced people, and the Terrains d'Avenir programme aims to welcome displaced people into the local sporting community and provide a solution to help them build their new lives.

As Chef de Mission, Masomah represents not only the 36 athletes who will be competing at the Paris Olympics, but also some 120 million displaced people worldwide (the number is estimated to have exceeded 120 million in the last six months).

"For me, the Refugee Olympic Team is about giving refugees access to elite level sport. But it's also important for me to be here at this handball session because we need to do more to give refugees access to sport at all levels. By welcoming them into our sporting communities, we give them a vital tool of hope and motivation to keep going."

She knows first-hand what it is like to flee your home, family and culture. Masomah fled her home country and was part of the Afghan women's cycling team. She competed in the Tokyo 2020 time trial for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team and became a member of the IOC Athletes' Commission for 2022.

Speaking from a sports centre near the Olympic Village in Paris, she said: "Playing handball with these women reminded me once again of the impact sport can have when you arrive in a new country as a refugee. It allows you to integrate into a new community; it gives you hope. Most importantly, it's a tool to overcome some of the challenges of being a refugee - it's a space where you can forget and play."

The women-only handball session is one of more than 30 weekly sports sessions run by the Olympic Refugee Foundation's (ORF) Terrains d'Avenir programme. The sessions are free and open to all.

The initiative offers a wide range of sports - including climbing, basketball, running, taekwondo, boxing and dance - to support the integration of displaced young people into their host communities in Paris and the Île-de-France region. Although spread across Paris, the programme focuses on the north-east of the city - the epicentre of the Paris 2024 Games - where there is a high concentration of displaced people and particularly high barriers to access to sport.

Jeroen Carrin, Senior Programme Manager at ORF, said: "This initiative has been a game changer in Paris. As Terrains d'Avenir builds its legacy in the field of sport for refugees, our partners are working hard to create lasting changes in how and how often asylum seekers and refugees access sport in the Paris area. This year, we're particularly focused on increasing female participation by creating all-female sessions and improving coaches' expertise in working with young people from a forced migration background".

The programme began with the ORF recognising that even in high-income countries like France and world-famous cities like Paris, there are barriers to access to sport for young people. Within these complexities, displaced people face even greater barriers. 

These barriers are not unique to France, but with the approach of the Paris 2024 Games and the financial support of the Ministry of Sport, there was a significant opportunity to use the attention on the city and the Games to break down some of these barriers and shape a movement to ensure that all displaced young people can access and enjoy sport.

Jeroen added: "The goal is clear: to change the way sport is accessed and to create a lasting legacy from Terrains d'Avenir - not just here in Paris, but around the world."

Terrains d'Avenir aims to ensure its long-term impact by training 200 professionals in safe and supportive sports methods. To date, the programme has reached 6,500 young people through sports sessions in the North-East of Paris and Île-de-France, key areas for the Olympic Games and where there is a significant need for displaced youth to have access to safe sports.