Building community through sports in Sweden
Sports have a way of bringing people together. There’s something about active play with a common purpose that transcends language or cultural difference. “It’s about inclusion, increased equality, movement, and joy,” says Daniel Kraft, club manager of Swedish professional football club Gefle IF. Inclusion is especially important in the community Gefle IF represents—Gävleborg County is an ethnically diverse region, with about one in five residents hailing from outside Sweden (Statistika centralbyrån, 2021). Many are refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
Bringing together children of all backgrounds
To promote an inclusive community in Gävle and Sandviken, Microsoft has partnered with four local sporting organizations: Sandvikens IF, Stromsbro IF, Gefle IF, and SAIF Bandy. Each of these organizations strives to create safe spaces for young people of all backgrounds to gather, make friends, and connect through sports. Programs range from night soccer to girls’ bandy leagues (a sport like ice hockey) to summer camps, and more.
- Gefle IF, the oldest sports association in Sweden, provides a wide range of activities to youth ages 5 through 10 as part of its #EttBättreGefle (A Better Gefle) initiative: youth soccer teams, pickup soccer nights, walking soccer, and school support. With a focus on both inclusion and role modelling, Gefle IF maintains a roster of about 35 percent immigrants and 33 percent girls. The club offers the popular Gavlis Summercamp, an entirely free camp for children aged 11 through 13. “The essence of Summercamp is to give children the opportunity for movement, access to fun activities, and community,” explains camp manager Agneta Edin. When many club activities across the municipality were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, Microsoft was able to help keep this summer camp open and successful.
- Sandvikens AIK Bandy, Sandviken’s professional bandy club, features youth programs like the Afterschool Bandy project and the Girls in Focus tournament. The focus of Microsoft’s involvement is Projekt Entré, an integration project designed to bring sports and education services to women and children new to Sweden. Projekt Entré helps women and children adapt to life in Sweden; for example, the program offers swimming lessons, of critical importance given the popularity of water sports in Sweden and the high incidence of drowning among immigrant populations.
- Sandvikens IF reaches thousands of children a week through its school-based sports program, estimates program manager Chia Abdolah. In addition, Sandvikens IF offers afterschool and night soccer as well as social clubs and health support for local youth. In 2021, Sandvikens IF founded the popular Framsteget, a summer camp for kids with economic need. The camp offers a place for children to go in the summer when their peers are away on holiday. “Framsteget means a lot to me. It’s been my place and my friends’ place to hang out and meet other people,” reflects a former Framsteget youth leader. “I feel so at home here.”
- Strömsbro IF, a Gävle sports club, runs Vårabarnsframtid, a series of projects “that affirm diversity and work integratively to ensure that all young people, regardless of culture, can meet and access the same opportunities.” Vårabarnsframtid’s charter addresses local segregation and strives to “break these barriers by seeking out and inviting young people from different cultures to our projects.” Teens can train under the ‘Responsibility Model’ for leadership positions. A popular Vårabarnsframtid program is Sommarglädje (“Summer Joy”), a summer camp serving nearly a thousand children each year. The camp brings together both children born in Sweden and those newly arrived in the country for a summer play agenda of sports, singing, dancing, and crafts. Sommarglädje abides by the principle that “Everyone should feel safe with us, and all children should feel heard, affirmed, heard and valued.” Microsoft will sponsor financial aid for 100 children to attend Sommarglädje in 2021.
“Framsteget has been my place and my friends' place to hang out and meet other people... I feel so at home here,”—Former Sandvikens IF Framsteget youth leader
“Can I join?”
There’s much more to Gävle-Sandviken’s youth sports programs than fun and games. These four clubs see sports as a means toward helping kids across the region feel included in their community, regardless of their cultural background. “We want to use the power, the community, and the connections that football brings to change the game even outside the pitch for a more equal, sustainable, and inclusive society,” says Gefle IF’s manager Kraft.
It is this commitment to an inclusive community that inspired Microsoft’s partnership with the region’s sporting clubs. “We are interested in supporting local organizations that are focused on creating healthier, more connected, and happy communities,” says Richard Ryan, Datacenter Community Development Program Manager at Microsoft.
Sports are especially well positioned to bring together Swedish children of all backgrounds—physical play is at once a powerful connector for children and an important part of Swedish culture. The Swedish Sports Confederation explicitly advances sports as a means of transcending cultural difference, stating: “One of sport’s most important basic rules is that everyone should feel welcome to participate regardless of who they are.” Playing together on a team unites youth across language, cultural, and gender differences. “Competitive sport is a meeting place where people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds can get to know, understand and respect each other through a common interest,” write Swedish public health researchers Hertting and Karlefors in a report for the Center of Sports Research in Sweden (2017).
The investment in children’s activities pays off in stronger communities. Thomas Östergren of Strömsbro IF observes, “Children have the opportunity at Sommarglädje to come and mix with their peers. They understand that all children are good and can be friends. When the children understand each other, we have a better society.” These children in turn become an “extended arm” for their families, bringing parents and siblings into the fold too.
For immigrants seeking a new life in Sweden or anyone experiencing social exclusion, something as simple as kicking a ball among teammates can become a lifeline to a sense of belonging.