Improving the mental health of young refugees in Uganda through sport

World Mental Health Day 2020 was a moment to recall the importance of addressing mental health issues at a time when close to 1 billion people live with a mental disorder, and when billions of people around the world have seen their mental wellbeing affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Youth Sport Uganda

Refugees are among the most vulnerable to the consequences of the pandemic, and mental health conditions amongst people forced from their homes by conflict and war are already two or three times higher than in the general population, with one in five people experiencing mental health challenges. Young refugees live with the daily stress and anxiety of being forcibly displaced, but one thing that can make a real difference to their mental and physical wellbeing is sport.

This fact means that, three years on from its establishment by the IOC, the mission of the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF) is more vital than ever, and it recently helped launch two new programmes in Uganda which are giving young refugees and their hosts a place to play and dream for a brighter future:

  • Strong, Fit and Empowered (SaFE) is a 12-month programme that is currently delivering two COVID-19 relief projects in Uganda, designed to encourage families to stay at home, increase bonding, reduce tension and keep safe while engaging in sport.
  • Game Connect is a three-year programme launched in August 2020 that aims to improve the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of young refugees by improving their access to safe sport. A consortium of five organisations plus ORF is co-creating a curriculum that will be delivered to young people in six refugee settlements across the country, as well as in the slums of Uganda’s capital Kampala.

Youth Sport Uganda

On World Mental Health Day 2020, we spoke to Karen Mukiibi, Deputy Executive Director of Youth Sport Uganda, to find out about the key role the local NGO is playing in delivering these initiatives to refugee communities in partnership with the ORF, and how the projects are positively enhancing the wellbeing of the young participants.

Why is World Mental Health Day 2020 important to you?

“For us, World Mental Health Day this time around is very important because of [the period] the refugees here in Uganda have gone through recently. They’ve just come out of a four-month lockdown, and some of the physical prevention measures that were put in place have caused isolation, which in turn has really affected their mental health. 

We want to use it as a day to make noise and ask local leaders to get more involved in programmes to raise awareness of mental health among young refugees. Because if you recognise the importance of helping young people build their mental resilience, this eventually contributes to the workforce, to their families and to the community at large.”

Youth Sport Uganda Youth Sport Uganda
How are Youth Sport Uganda and the Olympic Refuge Foundation working together to support refugee communities?

“Alongside the ORF and four other organisations (the UNHCR, the Uganda Olympic Committee, Right to Play and the AVSI Foundation), Youth Sport Uganda is embarking on a three-year project to improve the psychosocial wellbeing and mental health of young refugees, working together with well-trained community-based coaches to deliver a Sport for Protection programme and activities. 

But first and most critically, we are helping refugees to overcome the effects of the pandemic. They are facing so much stress and tension, and they are uncertain of their future. So we are providing food, PPE (personal protective equipment) and sanitation materials, and have created a multilingual hotline in order to give counselling to these refugees, who can also report gender-based violence cases.

Many of the refugees in Uganda also run small businesses. But when people were asked to stay at home, most of these businesses collapsed and the refugees had to divert their capital to keep up with their home expenses and look after their families. When the lockdown was lifted, they no longer had a source of income. So first of all, we are giving them some financial literacy training so that they know how to cope with the current situation. Then, we will give them some recovery capital to put back into their businesses so that they can earn a living and support their families.

For every refugee we reach out to, they are glad that someone is remembering them at such a difficult time. We appreciate the expertise and the funding that the ORF is bringing on board, which is really going a long way.”

Youth Sport Uganda Youth Sport Uganda
How do you feel that sport can improve mental wellbeing?

“We recognise that sport is a very important tool if you want to tackle mental health issues among refugees. When you place a group of young people in a field for a sports activity, they become equal. They can make friends, which impacts very positively on their mental health. You also realise on the pitch that these refugees will have leaders and coaches, and gain someone – an adult – that they can speak to about issues that are affecting them at home or in their lives. 

Sport creates a unity that bonds refugees and their host communities – and that is a power you cannot deny.”

Through your work with Youth Sport Uganda, have you seen first-hand how sport can change the lives of refugees?

“Yes. I know a 19-year-old refugee called Mugisho, who moved to Uganda alone five years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo and had to start fending for himself. He first joined our sport for development programme as a participant, but with time he became one of our coaches, and is now doing a course in counselling and guidance. 

He’s getting a lot of fulfilment now, first of all from being able to earn a little money from our coaching allowances, but also from supporting fellow refugees in handling the stress and uncertainties they are going through. They see him as an example of someone who has been in their position but is in a better place now. He’s my classic example of a refugee who has benefited from sport as a tool to improve his mental health.”

About the Olympic Refuge Foundation

In September 2017, during its Session in Lima (Peru), the IOC launched the Olympic Refuge Foundation to support the protection, development and empowerment of children and young people in vulnerable situations through sport.

Working in cooperation with the UNHCR, international organisations, non-governmental organisations and other foundations, the ORF is now supporting projects all over the world, and is committed to ensuring that one million forcibly displaced young people will have access to safe sport by 2024.

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