United Glasgow: The amateur club fighting for Scotland's refugees

United Glasgow have three men's teams that play on Saturdays and Sundays.
United Glasgow have three men's teams that play on Saturdays and Sundays

Kelvin Mwangi Githinji arrived in Glasgow from Kenya in March 2018. An asylum seeker from tropical East Africa, he suddenly found himself in a cold, damp city with few familiar faces and even fewer familiar accents.

He did have one thing in common with the strangers around him though - football. And that's where a club called United Glasgow came in.

Founded in 2011 under the motto 'Unity in the community', it was set up for refugees and asylum seekers with the intention of providing free access to football equipment, pitches and all the support they needed to assimilate into Glaswegian life.

Now, seven years on, the club boasts three competitive teams and four community drop-in sessions each week that help support more than 200 players of all genders, sexual orientations, religions, ethnicities, socio-economic positions and immigration statuses.

Here, BBC Scotland tells a tale of translating patter, Buckfast-inspired merchandise and financial hardship.

'It's hard to find something like this'

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‘It’s really hard to find something like this’

"When I arrived, I felt like this was what I really needed," Kelvin says as he looks across the men's and women's first teams on a floodlit pitch on a gloomy autumn night in Dennistoun. "I can interact with many people from different countries and different backgrounds."

Kelvin, 25, admits finding the Glasgow accent tricky, but a club that can boast 50 nationalities over the past eight years is proving a fine way for many refugees and asylum seekers to learn English.

"It's strange and funny," adds Kurdish asylum seeker Mohamed Ahmed, who joined five years ago. "There are over 15 different countries and languages. You feel like everything is different, not just you.

"Sometimes you can try speaking your own language and nobody understands it. Then someone says something else and you learn something from another language. It's really nice."

The 26-year-old winger has considered leaving Glasgow a few times but says the support and joy he gets from playing for the club every weekend has always convinced him to stay put.

"It's really hard to find something like this," Mohamed says. "Especially for us when you come to a country and don't know anyone. You find something like this and you feel like you have a family."

The club are determined to foster an environment in which the players forget about their backgrounds, so don't ask about their pasts or even hold much in the way of personal details.

Anything they do hold and submit can be monitored by the Home Office, with one of the coaches once being visited by the authorities after listing one player as living at his own home address.

'It means more than I realised'

United Glasgow attend a number of marches and demonstrations outside of their football activities.
United Glasgow attend a number of marches and demonstrations outside of their football activities

It isn't just refugees and asylum seekers that join United Glasgow. The club also helps promote and defend the rights of ethnic minorities and the LGBT community within Scotland.

As such, they rely on volunteers and players from Glasgow and across the rest of the country.

"It means more than I realised, to be quite honest," says Ethan Lamb, who joined the club following disappointing experiences at a string of clubs around Glasgow after his move from Dumfries.

"It just took me by surprise. I love it. The reward was quite subtle to begin with, but then I realised how much good it does for people."

When Ethan isn't translating Glaswegian into English for his team-mates, he takes part in marches, helps populate university stalls or simply provide a helping hand to those at the club who can't afford to buy boots or pay the fees charged by other amateur clubs.

"You can have an idea of what you think goes on, but you never really know till you get yourself stuck in and immersed," says the 24-year-old.

"I would consider myself a pretty open guy who is open to meeting all sorts of people, but until you're actually in here, you don't realise how beneficial it is for everybody involved."

'Are we cool? Yeah, 100%'

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'It’s a huge thing to people’s lives'

United Glasgow's message of inclusivity and acceptance has garnered a steady increase in popularity and support.

Unlike your typical Sunday league team, they have social media channels that reach almost 9,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter each week, popular merchandise such as a T-shirt parodying Buckfast wine's bottle label with the slogan 'antifascists' and regularly host club nights and fundraisers that attract hundreds of supporters.

"We go to every single march we can and we're always trying to get as many people as we can get to stands at everywhere we can," says women's coach Emma Porteous.

When asked whether the club's message and approach had made the club hipster and trendy, Emma says: "Yeah, 100%.

"When I'm in the gym, people are always like 'Oh, a Buckfast top?' and then they read it and they're like 'Oh, who do you play for?' and then I explain everything to them.

"Having all these things, like going to the marches and just being outspoken about what I believe in, is cool in itself. I just love it. Every T-shirt I own is pretty much a United Glasgow one."

Paul Georgie, who helps run the Sunday men's team, agrees that the club offer a respite from the divisive politics that people are bombarded with every day.

"A lot of people come to just enjoy something away from their day-to-day lives," says Paul, who joined the club shortly after its inception in 2011.

"I think it would be a very different club if we were still the kind of results-driven, traditional Scottish football environment. That wouldn't be as conducive an environment for some of the players here."

'Money is always a problem'

Despite its popularity, United Glasgow is still dogged by the same financial issues as most amateur football clubs in Scotland - equipment and venue costs.

As things stand, 70-80% of the club's revenue is spent on booking pitches and providing boots, shin guards and strips for players that cannot afford them on their own.

The club has received funding from initiatives such as Sported or the Big Lottery Fund's Young Start Fund, but that backing is limited.

"Money is always a problem," says Ruiradh MacFarlane, United Glasgow's football coordinator. "I have experience in other countries across Europe that are far more subsidised.

"That's currently not here within Scotland and I think the grassroots game could do with a cascade of money to it to help projects such as our own to accelerate and to continue doing the great work."

Ruiradh and his colleagues would like to get to the stage where United Glasgow are not just an end point for those in need but could also one day proactively reach out to Scotland's minority communities.

Like the refugees who muster the courage to show up at one of the club's drop-ins, United Glasgow show no signs of slowing down in their quest to make Scottish football a more welcoming place for all.

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